University of Pennsylvania information science professor Matt Blaze happened upon an SUV near the Philadelphia Convention Center sporting a license plate radio and other surveillance gear not-so-cleverly disguised as a Google Street Car (the kind that roam around and produce Google Maps and the accompanying Street-level scenery). More than a few outfits picked up the story and determined that it was a Philadelphia Police vehicle but the, ahem, cunning misdirection was “not authorized.”
Many people are loading their homes with extra-smart devices, not just connected but able to do things like spoken language processing thanks to microphones and cloud software, such as the Amazon Echo. Gizmodo’s Matt Novak put in a Freedom of Information Act request to see if the FBI had yet wiretapped one and received what’s known as a Glomar Response: “We can neither confirm nor deny.” Draw your own conclusions there.
An incredible, insane investigation shows that federal agents bugged public areas around bay-area courthouses for years in the hopes of overhearing illegal conversations. And did so without warrants. In order to catch mortgage auction bid-rigging.
In public, non-public and supposedly privileged areas we are less and less able to depend on any kind of principles around privacy. In some cases (such as the Echo) we willingly surrender some of that privacy for convenience. In others we find that the privacy considered to be sacrosanct is violated without so much as due process of law. Practicality demands we enter into two renegotiations: one with ourselves regarding what privacy and self-security we’re willing to relinquish in exchange for services (Echo) or some semblance of safety (overall law enforcement); and a second with each other, on the civic level, as technology enables vastly greater surveillance powers but doesn’t seem to be enabling greater democracy. As Thomas Rid said in the excellent Cyber War Will Not Take Place, “The real risk for liberal democracies is not that these technologies empower individuals more than the state; the long-term risk is that technology empowers the state more than individuals, thus threatening to upset a carefully calibrated balance of power between citizens and the governments they elect to serve them.”
I have a deep love for subversive technologies — something that should be no surprise. Rid’s book contains an excellent discussion on technology and subversion, a discussion we need to revisit as the state and other institutions demand authority and legitimacy but continue to interfere with protected freedoms. Our technology currently empowers the state. What does the situation look like with more balance? What technologies can we promote that, as Rid defines subversion, deliberately attempt to undermine the trustworthiness, integrity and constitution of an established authority or order. Certainly they’re not all illegal and there are perhaps some of those technologies that may be illegal or treated as illegal that aren’t. For instance, use of the Tor anonymization platform is perfectly legal but, as authorities have admitted, brings extra law enforcement scrutiny to users and makes them surveillance targets (so does the simple act of encrypting your net traffic, such as through a commercial VPN). That very tension — between an act not being illegal yet prioritizing one as a target for more surveillance — is at the heart of subversion because it exposes the practical differences between the values we exalt and the operational principles we employ.
It’s not an easy balancing act. Nothing about this is simple. But the narratives that FBI Director James Comey and others keep slinging are filled with, at best, inaccuracies. The FBI positions aren’t a result of them being disempowered by encryption but empowered by a myriad of technologies — automated plate readers, better remote microphones, in-home surveillance rigs — and fearful of a re-balancing.
Technology’s primary role should be to empower individuals. Tell me I’m wrong.