Posts about privacy

For the diseased

I cannot possibly do better than Zeynep Tufekci in taking two journalists — New York Times columnist and former executive editor Bill Keller and his wife, Guardian writer Emma Keller — to school in a brilliant post that explains how each exploited and offended, misinterpreted and mistreated a mother who they think is doing too much and saying too much about her cancer. Please, please go read that now.

I will address only one matter myself: blogging and tweeting — or as we used to say, talking about — disease.

I will readily tell you about my prostate cancer and consequently malfunctioning penis, about my thyroid cancer, about the atrial fibrillation that came after I sucked in the dust of destruction at the World Trade Center, and while I’m at it, I might as well add a note about my bursitis.

I don’t do this because I am a hypochondriac or want an ounce of sympathy — I deserve none as I have had cancer lite, with no chemo, no radiation, only momentary pain or inconvenience, and most importantly, no mortal threat. I don’t do this to take part in what my elderly parents living in a community of elderly friends call “the organ recital.”

I do this because I gain support and information and because I can give others support and information. I do this because I believe we must talk about about sickness, openly and honestly, to rob it of its stigma, to pool what we know about it, to teach people about it, to influence policy about it.

And why shouldn’t we? It’s just disease. It happens to all of us, except those who come to violent ends. Imagine a world in which there is no stigma about illness, in which ailments are not a matter of privacy or lost insurance or jobs, in which we collectively share and learn as much as we can about what afflicts us so it can afflict fewer. It’s just data.

So I am astounded that two journalists who should support transparency as a virtue come to question the ethics of Lisa Adams for talking about her disease. It is her disease. It is her motives that matter, generously trying to educate people about her treatment. How dare a journalist of all people try to tell someone what she cannot say? How could a journalist seek less information in the world?

When I blogged about my prostate cancer, one and only one guy — who didn’t like me anyway — similarly complained that I was saying too much. He accused me of oversharing. I said the problem is not that. It’s that he was overlistening.

If Emma Keller doesn’t want to read about Lisa Adams’ cancer, then she shouldn’t read it. If Bill Keller thinks Adams should not treat her cancer and her pain, well, he should mind his own business.

But if they do want to act as journalists in this new age, then they must follow Tufekci’s advice and learn that when they read someone’s words, they are not interacting with media, they are interacting with a person. It so happens the person they were writing about is brave and generous. They were not.

And we all should be welcoming the opportunity to hear more voices, learn more perspectives, gain more information. And we should all be wishing Lisa Adams our best for what she is going through and what she is offering us.

The technologists’ Hippocratic oath

The Guardian asked me for commentary on the letter to the White House and Congress from eight tech giants about NSA spying:

Whose side are you on?

That is the question MP Keith Vaz asked Alan Rusbridger last week when he challenged the Guardian editor’s patriotism over publishing Edward Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ leaks.

And that is the question answered today by eight tech giants in their letter to the White House and Congress, seeking reform of government surveillance practices worldwide. The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.

Of course, they are also acting in their own economic (albeit enlightened) self-interest, for mass spying via the internet is degrading the publics’, clients’, and other nations’ trust in the cloud and its frequently American proprietors. Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America.

But in their letter, the companies stand first and firmly on principle. They propose that government limit its own authority, ending bulk collection of our communication. They urge transparency and oversight of surveillance, which has obviously failed thus far. And they argue against the balkanization of the net and the notion that countries may insist that data respect national borders.

Bravo to all that. I have been waiting for Silicon Valley to establish whether it collectively is a victim or a collaborator in the NSA’s web. I have wondered whether government had commandeered these companies to its ends. I have hoped they would use their power to lobby for our rights. And now I hope government — from Silicon Valley’s senator, NSA fan Dianne Feinstein, to President Obama — will listen.

This is a critical step in sparking real debate over surveillance and civil rights. It was nice that technology companies banded together once before to battle against the overreaching copyright regime known as SOPA and for our ability to watch Batman online. Now they must fight for our fundamental — in America, our Constitutional — rights of speech and assembly and against unreasonable search and seizure. ’Tis a pity it takes eight companies with silly names to do that.

Please note who is missing off this list of signators: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Aol, Apple, LinkedIn. I see no telecom company there — Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic. Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies — eBay, Visa, American Express — that also know much about what we do?

Where is the letter to David Cameron, who has threatened prior restraint of the Guardian’s revelations, and to the members of the Parliament committee who last week grilled Rusbridger, some of them painting acts of journalism — informing citizens of their governments’ acts against them — as criminal or disloyal? Since they urge worldwide reform, I wish the tech companies would address the world’s governments, starting with GCHQ’s overseers in London.

And where are technologists as a tribe? I long for them to begin serious discussion about the principles they stand for and the limits of their considerable power. Upon learning that government had tapped into communications lines between their own servers, two Google engineers responded with a hearty “fuck these guys.” But anger is insufficient. It is not a pillar to build on.

Computer and data scientists are the nuclear scientists of our age, proprietors of technology that can be used for good or ill. They must write their own set of principles, governing not the actions of government’s spies but their own use of power when they are asked by those spies and governments — as well as their own employers — to violate our privacy or use our own information against our best interests or hamper and chill our speech. They must decide what goes too far. They must answer that question above — whose side are you on? I suggest a technologists’ Hippocratic oath: First, harm no users.

First, the good news

First, listen to this superb and profoundly disturbing segment by On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman about how she and her husband and other guests at a Canadian wedding were detained and mistreated at the U.S. border crossings in spite of their citizenship — American — and because of their religion — Islam.

Welcome back. I told you it well done, didn’t I? I’d be screaming bloody murder at such treatment but Abdurrahman kept her journalistic cool and curiosity, trying to get the facts and understand our rights, asking questions, in spite of never getting answers. People have been saying lately that Verizon picked on the wrong person in me. Well, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not have picked a worse person to detain: a smart, accomplished journalist with an audience.

I would hope that CBP is humiliated by this and will change, but our government isn’t humiliated by spying on the entire damned world and won’t change that, so I’ll give up my hope. Nonetheless, this story is the perfect bookend to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA, showing a government that is out of control — because its citizens can no longer control it. Well done, OtM. Thank you, Sarah.

Now the bad news. Next came a story that did have me shouting at the radio as geographer Jim Thatcher condemned major tech companies with broad brush — without specifics, without evidence or proof, only with innuendo — for the possibility they could be redlining the world and diverting users away from certain areas. “It’s hidden what they’re doing,” he said. If it’s hidden, then how does he know they’re doing it? Not said. Microsoft had a patent that could do things like this but Thatcher acknowledged that “Microsoft may or may not” every use it. They could.

Brooke Gladstone laments Google’s purchase of Waze for $1.3 million because “we are being sold for our data, it’s an old story.” No, I was using Waze at the very moment I heard that because (1) I get data of great value back, helping me avoid not opium dens but traffic jams and (2) I generously want to share my data with others who have generously shared theirs with me. This is an example of a platform that does precisely what news organizations should do: help the public share its information with each other, without gatekeepers.

Next, Thatcher says with emphasis that “theoretically” Google could charge coffee shops for directing us to one over another. Then Thatcher acknowledges that it’s not happening. It could. And he dollops on a cherry of fear about technology and “for-profit” corporations.

Don’t you smell the irony in the oven, OtM? You properly and brilliantly condemn the CBP for detaining Americans because they are Muslims and because Muslims could do terrorism even when they don’t. Then, in the very next segment, you turn around and needlessly condemn technology companies because they could do things some guy imagines even though he admits they don’t.

Those are two sides of the same phenomenon: moral panic, the unsubstantiated suspicion that some apparently alien entity — Muslims or (OMG!) for-profit technology companies — could upset the social order, a fear often fanned by media.

Put down the fan, OtM, and learn the lesson from Abdurrahman’s superb story that your role — you of all media outlets — is to throw cold water on such unwarranted fright-mongering.

Mind you, these two segments were surrounded by two more very good reports: one that gives us a guide for what to ignore in breaking news (so as not to fan flames) and another about how — surprise, surprise, surprise — technology can lead to good ends. I remain a fan and loyal listener of OtM. And that is why I humbly offer you a map to guide you away from a dodgy neighborhood called technopanic.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?

NY Times technobias

nytimesp1From the headline to the lede to the chosen sources to the writing to the page-one placement, today’s New York Times coverage of Google’s $7 million settlement for the drive-by capture of wifi data is one-sided, shallow, and technopanicky.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the facts. Google’s Street View cars captured wifi addresses as they drove by as a way to provide better geolocation on our phones (this is why your phone suggests you turn on wi-fi when using maps — so you can take advantage of the directory of wifi addresses and physical addresses that Google and other companies keep). Stupidly and for no good reason, the cars also recorded other data passing on *open* wifi networks. But that data was incredibly limited: just what was transmitted in the random few seconds in which the Google car happened to pass once by an address. There is no possible commercial use, no rationally imagined nefarious motive, no goldmine of Big Data to be had. Nonetheless, privacy’s industrial-regulator complex jumped into action to try to exploit the incident. But even Germany — the rabid dog of privacy protectors — dropped the case. And the U.S. case got pocket lint from Google.

But that didn’t stop The Times from overplaying the story. Neither did it stop a CNN producer from calling me to try to whip up another technopanic story about privacy; I refused. I won’t pay into the panic.

Let’s dissect the Times story from the headline down:

* The Times calls what Google did “prying.” That implies an “improper curiosity” and an intentionality, as if Google were trying to open our drawers and find something there. It’s a loaded word.

* The lede by David Streitfeld says Google “casually scooped up passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users.” Later in the story, he says: “For several years, the company also secretly collected personal information — e-mail, medical and financial records, passwords — as it cruised by. It was data-scooping from millions of unencrypted wireless networks.”

The cars recorded whatever data was passing on these — again — *open* and *public* networks, which can be easily closed. Google was obviously not trying to vacuum up passwords. To say “unsuspecting computer users” is again loaded, as if these were victims. And to list particularly medical and financial records and not mention bits employed in playing Farmville is loaded as well.

* Here’s the worst of it: Streitfeld says unnamed “privacy advocates and Google critics characterized the overall agreement as a breakthrough for a company they say has become a serial violator of privacy.” A “serial violate or privacy”? Really? Where’s the link to this long and damning rap sheet? Facebook, maybe. But I doubt even Google’s vocal and reasonable critics would characterize the company this way. If Streitfeld found someone who said that, it should be in quotes and attributed to someone, or else he and the paper are the ones issuing this judgment.

* If anyone would say such a thing, it would certainly be the people Streitfeld did quote in the story, for he sought out only the worst of the company’s critics, including Scott Cleland, “a consultant for Google’s competitors” [cough] and Marc Rotenberg, self-styled protector of privacy at the so-called Electronic Privacy Information Center. Streitfeld also went to the attorneys general and a former FTC bureaucrat who went after Google. Nowhere in this story is there any sense of another side, let alone of context and perspective. That’s just not good reporting.

I have made it clear that I’m generally a fan of Google; I wrote a book about that. Nonetheless, I have frequently called Google’s recording of this data as its cars passed by — and this is my technical term — a fuckup. It was stupid. It was damaging to Google’s reputation. It played into the hands of the critics. That’s what I can’t stand.

I’m tired of media’s and governments’ attempts to raise undue panic about technology. Look at the silly, preemptive, and panicky coverage of Google Glass before the product is even out. A Seattle dive bar said it would ban Glass and media picked it up all over (8,000+ references at last check on Google News) — though the bar admitted, as any fool could see, that it was just a publicity stunt.

There are plenty of serious issues to discuss about protecting privacy and there is certainly a need to educate people about how to protect their privacy. But this simplistic, biased, anti-technology, panicked coverage does neither. I might expect this other outlets. But I’m sad to see The Times join in.

Note that as part of its settlement, Google will educate people to close their open wifi networks. The Times found someone to ridicule even that when its ink would have been better put to telling people how to close their networks.

: See also Phillip Dampier on the topic.

I see you: The technopanic over Google Glass

Screenshot 2013-03-06 at 2.45.02 PM
Google Glass isn’t available yet. Even so, the technopanic it’s inspiring is rising to full swivet. But I say there’s no need to panic. We’ll figure it out, just as we have with many technologies—from camera to cameraphone—that came before.

The greatest compilation of worries to date comes from Mark Hurst, who frets: “The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience— it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.” [His typography]

This is the fear we hear most: That someone wearing Glass will record you—because they can now—and you won’t know it. But isn’t that what we heard when cell phones added cameras? See The New York Times from a decade ago about Chicago Alderman Edward Burke:

But what Mr. Burke saw was the peril.
“If I’m in a locker room changing clothes,” he said, “there shouldn’t be some pervert taking photos of me that could wind up on the Internet.”
Accordingly, as early as Dec. 17, the Chicago City Council is to vote on a proposal by Mr. Burke to ban the use of camera phones in public bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.
His fear didn’t materialize. Why? Because we’re civilized. We’re not as rude and stupid—as perverted—as our representative, Mr. Burke, presumed us to be.

How will we deal with the Glass problem? I’ll bet that people wearing Glass will learn not to shoot those around them without asking or they’ll get in trouble; they’ll be scolded or shunned or sued, which is how we negotiate norms. I’d also bet that Google will end up adding a red light—the universal symbol for “You’re on!”—to Glass. And folks around Glass users will hear them shout instructions to their machines, like dorks, saying: “OK, Glass: Record video.”

That concern raised, Hurst escalates to the next: that pictures and video of you could be uploaded to Google’s servers, where it could be combined with facial recognition and the vastness of data about you. Facebook can’t wait to exploit this, he warns. But this is happening already. Every photo on my phone is automatically uploaded to Google; others do likewise to Facebook, each of which has facial recognition and information about us. Hurst acknowledges that we’re all recorded all day in public—remember: it is public—by security cameras. But the difference here, he argues, is that this data is held by a companies. Big companies + Big Data = Big problems, right? That’s the alarm Siva Vaidhyanathan raises:

But what’s to investigate? Should governments have investigated Kodak cameras when they came out? Well, Teddy Roosevelt did briefly ban cameras in Washington parks. In 2010, Germany’s minister of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, decreed that tying facial recognition to geolocation would be “taboo”—though one could certainly imagine such a combination being useful in, for example, finding missing children. To ban or limit a technology before it is even implemented and understood is the definition of short-sighted.

Hurst also fears that the fuzz and the Feds could get all this data about us, these days even without warrants. I fear that, too—greatly. But the solution isn’t to limit the power of technology but to limit the power of government. That we can’t is an indication of a much bigger problem than cameras at our eyelids.

I agree with Hurst that this is worth discussing and anticipating problems to solve them. But let us also discuss the benefits alongside the perils, change to welcome balancing change we fear—the ability to get relevant information and alerts constantly, the chance to capture an otherwise-lost moment with a baby, another way to augment our own memories, and other opportunities not yet imagined. Otherwise, if we manage only to our fears, only to the worst case, then we won’t get the best case. And let’s please start here: We are not uncivilized perverts.

Yes, I’m dying to get a Google Glass and get my head around it and vice versa. But rest assured, I will ask you whether it’s OK to take a picture of you in private—just as I ask whether it’s OK to take or share your picture now or to tweet or blog something you say to me. We figured all that out. We will figure this out. We have before. No need to technopanic.

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Clippings from The New York Times

Cross-posted from Medium.

LATER: A good post from Jürgen Geuter that raises the point I also wrote about in Public Parts: let’s concentrate on the use over the gathering of data; if we do the latter, we regulate what we’re allowed to know.

Theft v. sharing

Surely New York Times columnist and former editor Bill Keller understands how specious his comparison between Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg is.

What’s the difference, I asked a tech-writer friend, between the billionaire media mogul Mark Zuckerberg and the billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch?
When Rupert invades your privacy, my friend e-mailed back, it’s against the law. When Mark does, it’s the future.
There is truth in that riposte: we deplore the violations exposed in the phone-hacking scandal at Murdoch’s British tabloids, while we surrender our privacy on a far grander scale to Facebook and call it “community.”

Oh, come now. Murdoch’s henchmen steal private information through hacking phones and other nefarious means to splash it on the front pages of their rags. Facebook creates a platform that enables people to share with each other at their will, to connect, and to gather together to do anything from meeting for dinner to organizing a revolution. Surely Mr. Keller understands the difference between journalistic high crimes and felonies and providing a community with the means to organize itself — which, I argue, is what journalists should see as their mission.

Bill, I’ll send you a copy of my book, which explores the differences between privacy violated and publicness enabled.