Privacy defence

>> Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Let's say I'm walking down the street downtown. I am surrounded by buildings, most of them multistory; anyone who wants to go up in a second-floor window (or higher) can look down at me walking, walking, walking. They can coordinate if they want to: text message to someone in an adjacent building, "VanNewkirk just walked around the corner, you see him?" (or "cant c d00d u c him?", whatever).

So I'm in a field, and a plane or a helicopter flies over. Or I'm on a side street and a car drives by. I'm in public, I can be seen.

Well, maybe I'm in my backyard; I think I have an illusion of privacy because of my huge wooden fence (note: I don't really have a backyard; this is a pretend backyard with a pretend fence, it's as tall as you'd like to think it is). There's still miles of airspace over me and anyone can look down at me. For that matter, if I have a neighbor with a window overlooking my yard, they can watch me, too. If they want. Maybe they shouldn't and maybe I don't like it, but what's stopping them?

Well, I'll go inside. I'll go inside and I'll get on Facebook or Twitter or I'll write a blog post about my cat or my girlfriend or a book I read or a show I saw. Actually, you know, the truth is it's just a different kind of outside, it's a forum in the classic, no, in a classical sense of the word.

Now, look, it isn't that I might have nothing to hide. It's that I'm already exposed: little is actually hidden. If I get drunk and follow up by hitting the Twitter feed hard, well, y'know, let's not kid ourselves that this isn't a form of public drunkenness. And if I remorsefully go back and delete all those drunken tweets, let's not kid ourselves that they're necessarily really gone, that there aren't fossilized remains embedded in the assorted strata of the Internet, because there are. Let's put this bluntly, that nobody ought to put anything online they wouldn't put on a billboard beside the Interstate; no, wait, let's also point out: these days, fewer people might see the billboard.

Privacy is kind of sort of dead; it isn't sleeping or pining for the fjords, it's pushing up daisies, singing in the choir celestial (to paraphrase one of Cleese's and Palin's best bits). And it wasn't killed by Big Brother, we did it ourselves, for better or worse. We could have all decided this vast repository of information that has become a gigantic collective brain for humanity and continues to become more of one every day was really uncool, just something for the nerds to flame each other and play Spacewar! on, but we didn't do that; we didn't do that anymore than we decided to turn down the various devils' bargains we were offered by Facebook, Google et al. that they could have a Jinn's treasure cavern of personal marketing data in exchange for letting us all be virtual roommates no matter how vastly far apart we were physically in real live space.

So I read something like Jefferson Morley's tremulous post in Salon about the drones coming to America to serve as ubiquitous watchmen, and I have to confess I read it as if I am missing something that is just out of reach: surely the idea of police spies buzzing overhead like so many mosquitoes over a picnic seems unsavory, seems like an Eastern European nightmare, like something Orwell would have used to terrifying effect if helicopters had been worth enough of a tin shit in 1948 to posit a steel sky full of them following poor Winston from door to door. But I am naked; again, no, it isn't that I have nothing to hide, it's that I know I'm not really all that hidden. And what is a police drone going to see that a policeman can't see already? What is a drone going to catch me doing that a cop couldn't have caught me doing on Twitter? What dark secret am I going to reveal that couldn't have been found with Google... or, hell, even with Bing for chrissakes?

So I'll concede there is this:

Photographs of political demonstrators could be fed into facial recognition software on a scale previously unimaginable. Drones can also be weaponized with tear gas or tasers [sic] for remote crowd control. Michael Buscher, president of Vanguard Defense Industries, a drone manufacturer in Texas, told the Daily that police drones could have "rubber buckshot better available for large crowd dispersal." [link omitted]

And that is undeniably awful. Except. Except does that have anything to do with privacy or is it really about how technologies are used or abused? I mean, maybe the problem with protesters' faces being fed into facial recognition software isn't with whether a photo was taken by a drone or from the fifth floor of an overlooking office building, maybe the problem is with the implied use of that identification to pressure someone into surrendering their free speech and assembly rights. Except, see, here's this other thing, which is that we get into the whole issue of whether anonymous protest is part of a functioning democracy or whether political accountability necessitates that a protester be identifiable and willing to stand up for what they believe, which is admittedly a really complicated and tangled subject I can see multiple sides of. The real bottom line in any case, however, is that the problem Morley alludes to isn't really someone being recognized at a protest nor how they were spotted and recognized (which could be as simple as a police officer who knows the person seeing them in the crowd or as sophisticated as employing cameras and algorithms), the real problem is with the ones making the identification using that recognition to essentially blackmail the protester or punish him or her for exercising basic rights, which would be just as evil and wrong if you took the tech out of it and just had old-fashioned moles tunneling the crowd, see? And ditto for the "crowd control": I really don't see the distinction between suppressing political protest with rubber bullets and tear gas fired up close and personal by human beings and doing it with weapons deployed via robots.1

I just don't see the fear.

I do see this: that buying these things is a goddamn waste of money by local law enforcement. But that's a deeper problem than drones: that's the whole way in which the forty-year War On Drugs has corrupted and bent the legal system and police departments, and it's part and parcel of the related problem that paramilitarism is sexy. The first problem you solve by decriminalization, y'know? The second problem you solve by having legislatures stomp their feet for a change and point out that there's no reason on this wide green Earth for the Mayberry Sheriff's Department to have an armored SWAT tank and high-cal semiautomatic weapons just so they can bust Ernest T-Fucking Bass. There's an intersection with Morley's issues and my concerns around here somewhere, which is that some of this technology invites abuses, which is part of why they're a waste of money ("Well, Andy, I don't see why we have a riot tank if we're just gonna park it in front of Floyd's barber shop! And I'll just bet you my bullet those Darlings are running 'shine again! Let me drive it, Andy, just one time! You'll see how good it is!").

But that isn't a privacy problem. A social problem, a legal problem, a political problem, a fiscal problem--it's all kinds of problems. But I don't see it as a privacy issue. I'm not scared the government's going to photograph me doing something I checked into Facebook along with everybody with me; maybe I ought to be scared what they're going to do with that data, but that isn't about "privacy" so much as it's about liberty, and I think it's wise to make the distinction. I do not care if the government takes my picture from four hundred feet above me, though they could have saved themselves the trouble checking to see if one of my friends already took the same picture from four feet away and put it up on their Tumblr; but I'll be twice goddamned if the government is going to say "boo" to me about what's in that image, whomever or whatever took it.

Isn't that what this really ought to be about?

1No. Not wholly true: I see three distinctions, two of which favor the robots and one which favors humans. First, that robots firing crowd control weapons are likely to actually use the weapons from their intended distance, as opposed to doing, f'r'instance, what that dickhead cop in Oakland did when he leaned down and sprayed Occupy Oakland protesters directly in the face from mere inches away. Second, that by firing from a distance and in the air, drones are less likely to get into an altercation in which protesters and cops alike are injured or worse. Third, however, is the emerging problem that remote devices may encourage unneeded violence by disengaging the participants; i.e. a human being up close and personal with another human has an immediate and visceral investment in the consequences of his next action that appears to be removed when the violence is about to happen via a TV screen and videogame controller; maybe a cop with a drone-mounted Taser is even more likely to fire it than a cop with a Taser in his hand (and cops are already too quick and easy with the "nonlethal" weapons even as it is).


timb111 Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 12:27:00 PM EDT  

There's also the ubiquitous presence of cameras watching what everyone does. They're more likely to get a picture of your face from twenty feet away than drones are from 400 ft. above you. And of course you can wear a Guy Fawkes mask to hide your identity anyway.

Kathy Carrasco,  Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 3:34:00 PM EDT  

Re your third distinction: Shades of Ender's Game, d'you see it? Pretend it's all a *game* and you become conditioned to be as ruthless as is necessary, against the day when it becomes NOT a game. Makes it even creepier, doesn't it?

Good points. Good post.

Nick from the O.C.,  Wednesday, April 11, 2012 at 12:05:00 AM EDT  

I'm given to understand that the TV drama, "Person of Interest" is largely based on existing technology.

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