Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Privacy: Disturbing Ubiquity of Surveillance,

A lot of people have written about the "surveillance society". I'm not about to join them. Frankly I think that the amount of surveillance we have is reasonable for the most part, discrete, and compartmentalized enough to ensure effective civil liberty and (usually) privacy. It's that we're so disturbed about infractions about this privacy that indicates that for the most part we still have privacy. If it were otherwise, then privacy would be the exception rather than the rule.

However this sort of happy medium, between having enough information and "too much", isn't enough for some people. They gleefully rush in where even voyeurs might fear to tread. After all, there's nothing titillating about information that's become over-exposed. An element of mystery - that is privacy viewed from the outside - is necessary for even a voyeur to enjoy transgressing that boundary.

Who are these people? The Economist tells the tale of some idiot widget makers...

Believers in sensor networks often point to the growing use of radio-frequency identity (RFID) tags as evidence that embedding tiny wireless devices in everyday items makes commercial sense. RFID tags, which are typically the size of a grain of rice, do not contain a battery, but are woken up by a pulse of radio energy. This energy is absorbed and used to power up a small chip and transmit a response (usually an identification number). Long used to tag pets, RFID tags are now being used by retailers such as Wal-Mart and Tesco for inventory control, though this has raised fears about the potential to monitor customers, both before and after purchases are made. More capable sensors, which can do much more than RFID tags, may cause similar worries. BP, for example, has put sensors in its trucks to track their routes and monitor driver behaviour. Mr Douglas says such sensors are there strictly for safety reasons. He says the company is well aware of, and concerned about, the potential for invading privacy. But for now, motes are being used in benign and boring applications, such as switching lights on and off in a building in Chicago, monitoring temperature and pressure in a London underground station, and measuring seismic shivers in a building in earthquake-prone Berkeley, California.

The fact that these "believers" are linking RFID and this "smart dust" or extended micro-sensor networks, isn't a comfort to this oldman. I think that these rampant dreams of techno-ubiquity and the utopia that they think will come from them, is as naive as the dream now shattered for all but the true-believers in the neocon vision of "transformation" of the Middle-east. (Asia Times)
The global trend of "regime change" is unmistakable. It cannot be ignored or discounted. It is widening in scope and accelerating. The overly muscular, militarized foreign policy of the US is backfiring on the last superpower. So is its unilateralist approach to international relations, and its extreme stinginess in rewarding those who align with it. Without its very close strategic allies around the world to facilitate the carrying out of its will, the US is much like a big giant who abused and misused his own subordinates, and who are finding they do have minds of their own and are progressively refusing to carry out the orders coming from the giant. Formerly, his subordinates were very fearful of refusing to obey him. But now, they are finding that he can be ignored on a number of issues, or even opposed, with significant benefits. And the spirit of independence from him is spreading very fast. We are seeing just how dependent upon those subordinates the US "giant" really is, and how he brought wholly on himself the present situation in which he now finds himself. Notably, his ill-conceived policy of "regime change" is coming back to haunt him massively.

It's true. Simply because we weren't realistic and we fumbled the use of our power, we set our global situation back decades. North Korea is now on the verge of having intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Alqueda has slipped through our grasp. Our middle-east policy is in shambles. There are open and extended running-battles in broad daylight as the insurgency takes over whole neighborhoods in northern and southern Baghdad and in Mosul. The Taliban are gathering in sufficiently large numbers in Afghanistan that we can bomb them effectively again, which far from a victory is an ominious sign that they would be that numerous, organized, and emboldened.

Over all it's a complete mess. The techno-creep will leave us in the same situation. We're not ready to have ubiqitious openly accessible sensor networks tied together with cybernetic tracking impulses. In an ideal world, a crisp cool cleanly outlined science-fiction world of the far future yes all these things would come about and be used responsibly and be regulated transparently and it wouldn't impact liberty or privacy. However our social, cultural, and governmental values and institutions lag horribly behind the progress of technology or political philosophy. Just as pure communism would be an ideal system of social organization for angels, so too God can handle omniscience without trampling on the lives of lesser beings. However we are not God, though we are ever increasingly willing to believe the hubris that we can in the future prove capable of managing well that which we have never demonstrated in the past that we could handle anything remotely like this.

Save us from the utopias fanatics and true believers, the fundamentalists and the ideologues and the revolutionaries because the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Now that is a good prayer.


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