Posts about Internet

The war on secrecy

Here is a post I wrote for the Guardian:

It has been said that privacy is dead. Not so. It’s secrecy that is dying. Openness will kill it.

American and British spies undermined the secrecy and security of everyone using the internet with their efforts to foil encryption. Then Edward Snowden foiled them by revealing what is perhaps (though we’ll never know) their greatest secret.

When I worried on Twitter that we could not trust encryption now, technologist Lauren Weinstein responded with assurances that it would be difficult to hide back doors in commonly used PGP encryption — because it is open source.

Openness is the more powerful weapon. Openness is the principle that guides Guardian journalism. Openness is all that can restore trust in government and technology companies. And openness — in standards, governance, and ethics — must be the basis of technologists’ efforts to take back the the net.

Secrecy is under dire threat but don’t confuse that with privacy. “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret,” Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez tells his biographer. “Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves,” Jill Lepore explains in The New Yorker. “Privacy is consensual where secrecy is not,” write Carol Warren and Barbara Laslett in the Journal of Social Issues. Think of it this way: Privacy is what we keep to ourselves. Secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government.

It’s often said that the internet is a threat to privacy, but on the whole I argue it is not much more of a threat than a gossipy friend or a nosy neighbor, a slip of the tongue or of the email “send” button. Privacy is certainly put at risk when we can no longer trust that our communication, even encrypted, are safe from government’s spying eyes. But privacy has many protectors. And we all have one sure vault for privacy: our own thoughts. Even if the government were capable of mind-reading, ProPublica argues in an essay explaining its reason to join the Snowden story, the fact of it “would have to be known.”

The agglomeration of data that makes us fear for our privacy is also what makes it possible for one doubting soul, one weak link — one Manning or Snowden — to learn secrets. The speed of data that makes us fret over the the devaluation of facts is also what makes it possible for journalists’ facts to spread before government can stop them. The essence of the Snowden story, then, isn’t government’s threat to privacy so much as government’s loss of secrecy.

Oh, it will take a great deal for government to learn that lesson. Its first response is to try to match a loss of secrecy with greater secrecy, with a war on the agents of openness: whistleblowers and journalists and news organizations. President Obama had the opportunity to meet Snowden’s revelations — redacted responsibly by the Guardian — with embarrassment, apology, and a vow to make good on his promise of transparency. He failed.

But the agents of openness will continue to wage their war on secrecy.

In a powerful charge to fellow engineers, security expert Bruce Schneier urged them to fix the net that “some of us have helped to subvert.” Individuals must make a moral choice, whether they will side with secrecy or openness.

So must their companies. Google and Microsoft are suing government to be released from their secret restrictions but there is still more they can say. I would like Google to explain what British agents could mean when they talk of “new access opportunities being developed” at the company. Google’s response — “we have no evidence of any such thing ever occurring” — would be more reassuring if it were more specific.

This latest story demonstrates that the Guardian — now in league with The New York Times and ProPublica as well as publications in Germany and Brazil — will continue to report openly in spite of government acts of intimidation.

I am disappointed that more news organizations, especially in London, are not helping support the work of openness by adding reporting of their own and editorializing against government overreach. I am also saddened that my American colleagues in news industry organizations as well as journalism education groups are not protesting loudly.

But even without them, what this story teaches is that it takes only one technologist, one reporter, one news organization to defeat secrecy. At the length openness will out.

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?

Give up on the net?

Die Zeit asked a handful of people to answer their question, in essence: Have big companies and the NSA ruined the internet? Or to quote the email to me: “Have all the hopes concerning the internet been destroyed?” Here’s my answer in English; the German translation is here.

The battle for control — and the soul — of the internet has only just begun.

I doubt the net’s creators realized how subversive it was to connect anyone to anyone, bypassing the institutions that mediated those connections: from media to government, universities to retailers. These institutions are now circling wagons to protect their prerogatives: copyright for media, secrecy for government.

But as much as they want to take charge of it, the internet is less about institutions than individuals. Now anyone who’s connected can speak to, find, join, and act with a public. Anyone can find information, learn, sell, and create.

Yes, large new institutions are born to serve these needs and opportunities: Google to connect us with information, Facebook with each other, Twitter with everyone. They and we are negotiating norms and ethics regarding privacy, transparency, and control, a process that’s progressing.

Then enter government. It may portray itself as the protector of privacy but it is instead the greatest threat to privacy, for it can gather information and use it against us as no one else can. It abuses the net.

The problem Edward Snowden uncovered in the NSA is not technology. The issue is transparency. The NSA demonstrates that secrecy corrupts and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

We must engage in the discussion Snowden finally sparked about the principles of a free and open society, which we must protect in the face of the new opportunities technology presents to, in the words of NSA chief Keith Alexander, “collect it all.”

Those principles, which I proposed in my book Public Parts, include:
* An ethic of privacy, compelling governments and companies not to steal our data without our knowledge.
* The ideal that government must be open by default and secret by necessity; today, it is the opposite.
* The right to connect, speak, assemble and act online as off.
* The understanding that if any bit on the net is stopped, detoured, or spied upon by any institution then no bit — or the net itself — can be presumed to be free.
* And agreement that the net must remain open and distributed, controlled or corrupted by no government.

Google’s TV

chromecast

Google just demoted your television set into a second screen, a slave to your phone or tablet or laptop. With the $35 Chromecast you can with one click move anything you find on your internet-connected device — YouTube video, Netflix, a web page as well as music and pictures and soon, I’d imagine, games — onto your big TV screen, bypassing your cable box and all its ridiculous and expensive limitations.

Unlike Apple TV and Airplay, this does not stream from your laptop to the TV; this streams directly to your TV — it’s plugged into an HDMI port — over wi-fi via the cloud … er, via Google, that is. Oh, and it works with Apple iOS devices, too.

I’m just beginning to get a grasp on all the implications. Here are some I see.

* Simply put, I’ll end up watching more internet content because it’s so easy now. According to today’s demonstration, as soon as I tell Chrome to move something to my TV, the Chromecast device will sense the command and take over the TV. Nevermind smart TVs and cable boxes; the net is now in charge. There’s no more awkward searching using the world’s slowest typing via my cable box or a web-connected TV. There’s no more switching manually from one box to another. If it’s as advertised, I’ll just click on my browser and up it comes on my TV. Voila.

* Because Google issued an API, every company with web video — my beloved TWiT, for example — is motivated to add a Chromecast button to its content.

* Thus Google knows more about what you’re watching, which will allow it to make recommendations to you. Google becomes a more effective search engine for entertainment: TV Guide reborn at last.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell higher-priced video advertising on its content, which is will surely promote.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell you shows and movies from its Play Store, competing with both Apple and Amazon.

* YouTube gets a big boost in creating channels and building a new revenue stream: subscriptions. This is a paywall that will work simply because entertainment is a unique product, unlike news, which is — sorry to break the news to you — a commodity. I also wonder whether Google is getting a reward for all the Netflix subscriptions it will sell.

* TV is no longer device-dependant but viewer-dependant. I can start watching a show in one room then watch it another and then take it with me and watch on my tablet from where I left off.

* I can throw out the device with the worst user interface on earth: the cable remote. Now I can control video via my phone and probably do much more with it (again, I’m imagining new game interfaces).

* I can take a Chromecast with me on the road and use it in hotel rooms or in conference rooms to give presentations.

Those are implications for me as a user or viewer or whatever the hell I am now. That’s why I quickly bought three Chromecasts: one for the family room, one for my office, one for the briefcase and the road. What the hell, they’re cheap.

Harder to fully catalog are the implications for the industry — make that industries — affected. Too often, TV and the oligopolies that control it have been declared dead yet they keep going. One of these days, one of the bullets shot at them will hit the heart. Is this it?

* Cable is hearing a loud, growing snipping sound on the horizon. This makes it yet easier for us all to cut the cord. This unravels their bundling of channels. I’ll never count these sharks out. But it looks like it could be Sharknado for them. I also anticipate them trying to screw up our internet bandwidth every way they can: limiting speeds and downloading or charging us through the nose for decent service if we use Chromecast — from their greedy perspective — “too much.”

* Networks should also start feeling sweaty, for there is even less need for their bundling when we can find the shows and stars we want without them. The broadcast networks will descend even deeper into the slough of crappy reality TV. Cable networks will find their subsidies via cable operators’ bundles threatened. TV — like music and news — may finally come unbundled. But then again, TV networks are the first to run for the lifeboats and steal the oars. I remember well the day when ABC decided to stream Desperate Housewives on the net the morning after it aired on broadcast, screwing its broadcast affiliates. They’d love to do the same to cable MSOs. Will this give them their excuse?

* Content creators have yet another huge opportunity to cut out two layers of middlemen and have direct relationships with fans, selling them their content or serving them more targeted and valuable ads. Creators can be discovered directly. But we know how difficult it is to be discovered. Who can help? Oh, yeah, Google.

* Apple? I’ll quote a tweet:

Yes, Apple could throw out its Apple TV and shift to this model. But it’s disadvantaged against Google because it doesn’t offer the same gateway to the entire wonderful world of web video; it offers things it makes deals for, things it wants to sell us.

* Amazon? Hmmm. On the one hand, if I can more easily shift things I buy at Amazon onto my TV screen — just as I read Kindle books on my Google Nexus 7 table, not on an Amazon Kindle. But Amazon is as much a control freak as Apple and I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos is laughing that laugh of his right now.

* Advertisers will see the opportunity to directly subsidize content and learn more about consumers through direct relationships, no longer mediated by both channels and cable companies. (That presumes that advertisers and their agencies are smart enough to build audiences rather than just buying mass; so far, too many of them haven’t been.) Though there will be more entertainment behind pay walls, I think, there’ll still be plenty of free entertainment to piggyback on.

* Kids in garages with cameras will find path to the big screen is now direct if anybody wants to watch their stuff.

What other implications do you see?

Technopanic: The Movie

Disconnect thinks it is a film about technology’s impact on our lives. But it is really just a mawkish melodrama about a random bunch of creeps, jerks, assholes, and loners. It is not a warning about our future. In the future, it will be seen as the cyber Reefer Madness: in short, a laughingstock.

Disconnect begins by throwing us every uh-oh signal it can: online porn; people listening to their headphones instead of the world around them; people paying attention to their phones (and the people on the other end) instead of the boring world in front of them; skateboards; people ruining office productivity watching silly videos; kids wearing Hooters T-shirts; sad people chatting with strangers online; people gambling online; people getting phished into bankruptcy; and worst of all, kids using Facebook. Oh, no!

A series of parallel stories unfold: the loner kid who’ll be drawn to humiliate himself and attempt suicide by asshole teens, one of them the son of a cybercop (irony.com!); the young couple — let’s kill their kid to up the sympathy — who chat with strangers and gamble with machines and find their identities thieved (where’s the product placement for Identity Guard and Reputation.com!); the vulture reporter who exploits — and rather hankers for the loins of (and smokes reefers with) — the teen online hustler exploited by the cyberFagin.

Along the way, the movie delivers quite retrograde messages not only about technology but also about sexuality: It’s the men who are found to be at fault for not protecting their nests. Thus: technology castrates!

I hate to deliver any spoilers but it pretty much ends with everybody fucked up and miserable because they got anywhere near the internet.

Disconnect is merely an extension of a trend (we call it a meme these days) in challenging the value of technology against those of us — and I include myself in the “us” — who try to identify the opportunities technology provides. Instead, why don’t we look for everything that could go wrong and crawl back into our caves?