My CFP coverage in TidBITS

My coverage of the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference has just been published at TidBITS. The conference was chock-full of information and I’ve got more to say about it, which had to be cut from the article to keep this issue from becoming 30,000 words long, or from taking on more of a political tone than is usually the case. I’m still catching up on a pile of work from last week, so feel free to keep checking the CFP topic here to see my new articles as I post them.

Thanks go out to Adam Engst and the rest of the TidBITS crew for asking me to cover the conference, and to the Association for Computing Machinery for putting it on in the first place. As I say in the article, if you’re in the least bit interested in these topics, by all means come to Montreal next year.

Another shout-out goes to my buddy Brian Greenberg, who surely is shocked as hell to read this. The reason? Because Brian was the audience I had in mind when writing the article; he’s my standing skeptical sounding board on issues related to privacy and whether the current administration is living up to Orwell’s 1984, and I consciously wrote my piece with the hope of convincing Brian — and others like him — why these topics are important.

I’m sure he’ll tell me if I succeeded. Hope you do too.

4 thoughts on “My CFP coverage in TidBITS

  1. Thanks for a valuable article. It was fascinating reading. The conference sounds exhausting!

    As far as the NSA program is concerned, the President’s primary job is to protect us from foreign enemies. He has the legal authority to use the NSA program without going to FISA. I hope he continues to do so, because privacy won’t do me much good if I’ve been killed by a terrorist’s bomb. To ignore that side of the problem is to be foolish.

    As for disasters, people who expect the government (federal, state, or local) to take care of them will always be disappointed. That is even more true during a disaster. We all need to be prepared to take care of ourselves, by ourselves. Not even the Salvation Army can react quickly enough, and they’re marvelous at their work. A government can never react quickly enough or effeciently enough to be reliable. Just think “yellow school buses in New Orleans” and you’ll understand.

    Thanks again for all your thoughts.

  2. You wrote in your TidBITS article: “The overall impression his speech gave is that in the event of a disaster, we should expect to be on our own for a while; I don’t think that this is the general impression that DHS attempts to convey.” I respectfully disagree; DHS in almost all of the disaster preparation handouts/papers/suggested response [and also in the Community Emergency Response Team training sponsored by DHS] has been repeating the 72 hour mantra frequently. Whether people have been *listening* is another topic entirely.

    Unfortunately, a law-abiding (and otherwise well prepared) citizen living in Washington DC who is legally prohibited from gun-ownership could (implicilty) be stock-piling supplies for a well-armed criminal.

  3. Well, first of all, thanks for the shout-out. I’m happy to be the voice of reason (or lack thereof) that generated such a well-written article. And by the way, you found a group of people that routinely work from 8:30AM to midnight. Get the to hire you! (Kidding. Or am I?!?)

    As to whether or not you succeeded: yes, you did, although the bar wasn’t that high. I’m already on board that this kind of thing is important, especially as we do more and more with technology. I’m also sleep better at night knowing that folks like the CFP are constantly thinking about the possible implications of these technologies on our civil rights. Where I tend to disagree with you is in your assessment of the state of things right now. I see them as pretty good and likely to stay that way – conventions like this keep things from going too far off the rails, and people control the rest through the power of the free market and the court of public opinion. You tend to see things as teetering on the brink of disaster, requiring ever increasing dilligence to keep them from falling apart altogether.

    Finally, some thoughts on each of your more detailed points:

    Who owns my avatar?: As I wrote about in 2002, people tend to value privacy when asked about it, but consistently act as if it doesn’t matter much, especially when there’s some benefit in it for them. So there are people who won’t type their credit card number into a website that uses 256-bit encryption, but will read it over an unsecured phone line to a Time-Life operator, who could very well have his buddy simultaneously buying electronics with that number in the next cube. These same people will hand their credit card and a copy of their signature to some random high-school kid just because he took a part-time job as a waiter in the local pizza joint. If people are willing to do that, the prospect of a useful Amazon recommendation or a list of “My EBay Auctions” is more than worth giving up a little personal data.

    Speak Into the Table Numbers: As you and I have discussed before, I think the distinction between data-mining on fiber-optic telecommunications trunks and spying on random, domestic phone calls is one of technical capability vs. practical application of that technology. As such, I’m encouraged that the topic of “computer activity as unreasonable search” came up. And while I wasn’t there for the discussion, I have a few questions for those who think it is unreasonable search: 1) Do we need to add privacy statements on every browser cookie and every “Save Your Settings?” dialog box in the world to make sure the user is fully aware of the personal data being stored and the reason for its use? 2) If a computer unreasonably searches your data and then takes no action on it, did it commit a crime? and 3) If a computer has broken the law (without the involvement of humans), who do we arrest? The programmer? Whoever bought the software? Whoever is operating it? Also on this point: I think the fact that “the government creates secrets and classifies documents at a greater rate than ever before in American history” has as a lot to do with our ability to create documents themselves at a faster rate than ever before in American history. Not that this is the only factor, but it’s something to consider…

    DHS Self-Reliance: Like your other commenters, the “bombshell” about DHS did not surprise me either. FEMA did not arrive in New York until several days after 9/11/01, nor did they respond much faster to the many hurricanes that battered Florida in the summer of 2004. In those cases, though, FEMA was heralded for the great job they did because the people and their local/state governments provided basic support until further help arrived. To expect anything else would be like standing over an injured man complaining about the ambulance’s response time instead of performing basic first aid.

    (Incidentally, in the case of Katrina, I think the real (and severely under-reported) failure of the federal government was not in the timing of their response, but in their inability to adjust their response, given the spectacular failure of the first lines of defense – the state and local governments. One can draw similarities here to the government’s post-war failures in Iraq, but that’s a whole other article…)

    As for the post-speech discussion, it strikes me that these are people that have either never lived through a catastrophe, or simply had it in for DHS from the start. Yes, some Houston evacuees were stranded leaving town, but the evacuation was generally considered a success. Enduring a disaster is not supposed to be discomfort-free. If a hurricane hits your hometown, you’re going to be at least inconvenienced in some way. The reasonable goal is to minimize problems, not eliminate them. And sure – individuals and nonprofits will never build their own infrastructure, but they can take basic steps to ensure their own safety without waiting for the government to show up and cart them away. The first-response infrastructure should come from the institution that is a) closest to the scene and b) has the resources to handle it – the local government.

    A Rotten Apple?: I find it fascinating that DRM is being discussed at a conference on Freedom & Privacy. Its presence, as well as your description of the discussion, suggests to me that people implicitly consider DRM a bigger invasion of privacy than the storage/use of their personal data, and see technologies like BitTorrent as “freedom” from these kinds of invasions. There’s an important lesson here for content distributors (like Apple), for content owners, and for government officials. People’s expectations of fair use are changing with the underlying technologies, and if we truly want to protect the copyright owners’ rights, we need to find a method that isn’t perceived by the customer as being so intrusive on their lives. When music came on vinyl LPs, people had no choice but to buy what the record companies were selling. Today, massive civil disobedience has, and will continue to occur if the people feel the laws are overly restrictive to their lifestyles.

    Orwell versus the Creativity Machine: Not much to add here, other than to point out that the entity that is “out-Orwelling Orwell” is not the government, but the people themselves. In a 1984 world, surely the government would control the Wikipedia, no? Today, we can put computers & cameras in just about anything, but that makes it just as easy for working parents to install nanny-cams as it does for the government to watch us cross the street. The opportunity for abuse (as well as for legitimate value-add) is ubiquitous.

  4. Despite all the talk about this current sitting president and his attacks on the constitution, a little walk back in history to the reign of A. Lincoln would tell you that ANY sitting president has had the opportunity to cream the hell out of so-called “rights.” Lincoln routinely jailed people who opposed him, without charges, held them incommunicado, ordered genocide and murder, and set out with malice aforethought to deliberately corrupt the constitution. (See DiLorenzo’s brilliant book, The Real Lincoln.) What is really appalling is that most American historians have known about Lincoln since the 1870s and have never raised a single objection to Lincoln’s lionization in our educational system as “The Great Emancipator.” (He cared nothing for “negroes” and “freed” only those in the south, the ones over which he had no control, in hopes that they would create a rebellion. Negroes in northern states continued to be slaves.

    So rights, whatever that might mean to you, will be trampled on anytime an “authority” deems it “in the national interest.” Don’t ever count on the courts to protect you. If they happen to, you might then want to try Las Vegas!

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