/ surveillance

Poorly Written Thoughts on Privacy and Our Dark Future

I've written this dozens of times. Each time it's been edited, rewritten, edited again, rewritten some more, and ultimately trashed. Yet here I am, trying again. I've struggled a lot with the tone of this piece: everything from endless numbers and sources, swear words, to whatever you can imagine in between. I'm tired of writing this over and over again so here it is: stream of consciousness.

Every day I encounter a new development or thought or technology or idea that comes back to everything here and builds upon it or forces it in a new direction. This constant barrage eventually became too much, which is what led to this blog and this piece, for better or for worse, to finally be written.

I'm going to be blunt here. The future is dark.

At heart I'm an optimist, something my closest friends would tell you is a plain lie, but it's true. It's never been difficult for me to see a bright and better world just around the corner, but that gets harder each day. The promises of futurists, innovators, and entrepreneurs to "make the world a better placeTM" are twisted to track, shape, and control us - often by design.

Each morning I wake up and flip through my news, wondering what horrible, dystopic development has been announced today. Twitter, Reddit, HackerNews (for the masochist inside me) - they never fail to deliver. I pin the tab, bookmark the link, stash the discussion away. "I'll use this info later," I think to myself, "for that thing on privacy I'm going to write."

It wears you down after a while.

Welcome to our Dystopia

Our future, and present, is compromised in new ways and the systems that govern our lives (cultural, economic, and political) reward and encourage this slow rot. It's easy for us to point to the Snowden leaks and say "see, the government is illegally spying on you. This is bad and you should care" but that's a troublesome idea for a number of reasons.

First, it cements this concept that spying is only bad when it's illegal and that as long as you toe the line of the law (which that "bad" government department or corporation probably wrote), then you're free to spy and there's no privacy violation because it's "totally legal." This sets an expectation that privacy as it exists is something that is bestowed upon us by the good graces of the states we find ourselves living within, and if we (individually or collectively) or, more often, someone else act out of line, then those privileges are taken away in favor of removing your shoes in airports, metal detectors in schools, and software scanning for bad words online and in our phone calls (assassinate, president, anarchy, E.O.D, mailbomb).

This is all bullshit. Privacy is a natural right that we need to be rigorously defending from these attacks, but more on that later.

Second, this Snowden leak obsession totally overlooks what is perhaps more dangerous and is definitely more pervasive: surveillance capitalism. Yeah, it's easy for us to shrug and say "well I choose to use Facebook and Google gives me great free services in exchange for a little info, so what's the harm?" but this is a position born from naivete.

To begin, corporate surveillance is far, far more pervasive than which pages you like on your profile. Every website you visit, when you visit it, how long you visit, what you hover your mouse over, from where you visit, on what device you visit from, how much battery your device has when you visit, what links you click, what links you don't click, what browser you use, what fonts you have, what plugins and versions and OS and screen size and language and every single fucking thing you can imagine is recorded and shared among advertisers to profile you, catalog you, and build a virtual "you" which is often more accurate than what friends and families think they know about who you are. And then this is used to sell you things you almost certainly don't need. "Oh, but David, websites need advertisements to stay in business and besides, you can just block things and stay offline if it really bothers you" people tell me. Leaving the advertisement discussion aside for another time, you'll be alarmed to find that you can't actually escape this profiling as it has entered the real world.

In Real Life

IRL you're being tracked just as diligently as online, though the methods are far more dystopic. We all know the trope that carrying a cellphone around is like carrying a handy surveillance device for whoever wants to listen - and as silly as it is, it's true in many regards. Your carrier tracks your location everywhere you go (even if your GPS is disabled), "anonymizes" this information (which thanks to "big data" is basically useless), and sells it to advertisers. Apps listen in and record all sorts of data (who calls you, when they call, how often, who you text, what those texts say, how many texts, when are you walking, when are you home, when are you at work, when are you driving, when are you flying, and on and on and on). In stores, retailers use the unique identifiers your phone broadcasts when looking for WiFi hotspots to track who you are, when you visit, how often you visit, and even what parts of the store you spend the most time in. Cell phone makers have caught on to this, however, and Apple and now Google have added MAC address scrambling that prevents a profile from being built (though your visits are still recorded as separate individuals). Fortunately [sic], retailers have found a totally not creepy way around this: facial tracking.

This is one of those things that you tell people and they don't believe (though Snapchat's face filters have helped to display some of the tech in a first hand manner - also a popular conspiracy that Snapchat is recording this information and building a nice database as we speak), but late in 2015, 30% of retailers already had facial tracking installed in their stores with that number growing rapidly. There are off the shelf solutions available from dozens of providers. These require basically no setup, install the cameras and software and the retailer is ready to track. Every time you visit a store, your face is recorded, tracked, and profiled. If you buy something, your irl identity can now be tied to a credit or debit card which is tied to a phone number which is tied to your Facebook/Twitter/Gmail (which conveniently offer you handy security features in exchange for that phone number that ties all this together). It's now trivial for those companies and third party advertisers to show you ads from that irl retailer based on the fact that the store knows you spent too long looking at a display, but ultimately didn't buy anything.

Tell me with a straight face that that's not creepy and fucked up and a "beneficial service to show me products that I need but didn't know I needed."

Go ahead, I'm waiting.

Beyond that, we have IoT devices like nest or that bed that detects if your partner is fucking someone else while you're gone. These devices range from recording when you're at home/doing some activity to actively recording everything you do like Amazon Alexa does (never trust anyone who bought one of those things). Smart TVs actively record what shows you're watching, what ads you saw, when you skipped the ads - even what pirated content you watch (all through content hashing). Hell, some of the TVs even record what you say - same for XBox One or PS4 (if you install a microphone). You're actually hard pressed to find internet connected devices that aren't actively recording everything you do, see, and say. But people say that's okay because they're providing us a service or something - I guess.

...I'm getting tired of listing irl surveillance things so here's a random assortment of things that shouldn't be recording as much information as they currently are: fingerprint scanners, smart grids, recording phone calls, recording conversations in public areas, CCTV everywhere, MAC recording everywhere (not just retail stores as in NYC Link), Uber/Lyft/cab driving records, GPS tracking car insurance, Tesla cars (especially them but really any "smart" car with internet or OnStar access), license plate readers, credit/debit cards and checks, loyalty cards, NFC badges/credit cards/passports, genetic testing, smartwatches, fitness trackers, security systems, smart locks, internet connected alarm clocks, internet connected speakers, internet connected refrigerators, internet connected anything and on and on and on.

Use and Abuse

Look, I'm not unreasonable. I understand that to exist and interact with others means you're not going to be in control of all your personal information (lest you end up a parody). The very nature of being a human and interacting with society means you're generating and disseminating data about you and how you live your life constantly. That's unavoidable. I also acknowledge that there are genuinely valuable and helpful uses for this data. Data on where people move throughout a city (sold by cell carriers) can be invaluable for urban planners. Fitness tracking and genetic data is a treasure for the medical world and can provide insight at a scale unimaginable decades earlier while also simultaneously allowing extremely individualized healthcare. The implications for our health as a species are profound. I understand all this, and that aforementioned optimist can see hundreds of use cases like this.

But let's be real, most of this data is abused and what hasn't already will be.

We don't need advertisers knowing more about us than anyone else. We don't need ultra targeted ads based on our unique behavior. We don't need to give up all this data just to be told we need to buy something that we definitely don't need at all.

We don't need the state telling us which words are okay to say and which aren't. We don't need them reminding us not to call the "wrong" person, or travel to the "wrong" country, or believe the "wrong" idea. We don't need our ideology shaped by the threat that when we think (and ultimately say) the "wrong" thing that it's recorded and there may one day be a price to pay when the political winds shift.

We don't need to live in an opt-out world, where surrendering all this valuable information is the default state and trying to gain back some semblance of control of the information that defines who you are and how you live your life is a gargantuan task that requires deep technological knowledge, huge inconveniences, and endless amounts of paranoia.

A History of Spying

Surveillance has existed as long as civilization, with spy records extending well past Egyptian dynasties - endless generations of spying on enemies and lovers and rivals and friends and churches and businesses and states and everything imaginable. But until relatively recently, this didn't matter that much. Surveillance has historically been extremely expensive. To follow someone and record everything they do means you have at least one person (often more) to literally track that person everywhere they go. What's more, there are areas where it becomes impractical or impossible to follow preventing total surveillance.

Enter technology. The same computers and networks that have dramatically increased our productivity have also made surveillance possible at a scale unimaginable even a century ago. We have in our grasp, if it hasn't been realized already, the ability to completely surveil the populace of entire nations and to do so relatively cheaply. And most interestingly, that ability does not lie solely in the hands of the nearly unlimited power of government, but also in the hands of the private sector which, between real life tracking and IoT and online analytics, have created an almost complete dragnet in the name of capitalism. That's an unbelievable amount of information (and associated power) waiting to be abused.

Abuse comes in many forms. The most accepted, of course, is in hawking ads of all kinds (scientifically optimized to maximize effectiveness based on each of our unique profiles) at us on every site and in every app advertisers can worm their way into. From there, things get decidedly more drastic from the data leaks we've come to expect (I'm not even sure how many times my SSN has been sold at this point), to sexual privacy abuse (including everyone's favorite example of NSA employees trading hot nudes they recovered from devices), to blackmail (everything from you bought/saw/like this, to you said this/were in this place you weren't supposed to, to you were with/talking to/associated with these people that you shouldn't be), to targeting for political purposes (the successors of COINTELPRO in the gov or sites like Facebook actively shaping the news you see to elicit certain behavior). This is just the tip of the iceberg and you don't have to be an evil mastermind to come up with a few dozen positively malevolent plans in under ten minutes.

But here's the worst part, when it comes to how we deal with this there's very little we can do. The tech is out in the world and now that this veritable Pandora's box has been opened, it's not going away. The technology that enables all this is only getting better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. Investors and governments are pumping billions of dollars into better spy tech and that's not going to stop anytime soon. The Snowden leaks and the government's (lack of) response has emphasized that we can't legislate the problem away either (no surprise there). Laws that are introduced are poor at best in constraining these concerns before they're watered down by lobbyist interests (if they're passed at all). Furthermore, laws on the books that should be providing protection are routinely ignored, broken, or bypassed with roundabout legal constructs (secret courts and NSL's most notably). There's absolutely no motivation for a government to temper this power considering the vast advantages it gives it in both international and internal affairs.

Some privacy activists push technologies and behaviors in order to mitigate how much data we generate and give up (I'm definitely one of these people), but ultimately this an arms race that we can't win. The FOSS communities pushing this tech in the digital space just don't have the funding and personnel to tackle private industries and governments willing to spend billions.

What Can We Do?

So we can't stop the development of the tech, we can't legislate the problem away, and we can't defend ourselves in this privacy arms race (though you should still try which is a conversation for another time) - so what can we do?

Ultimately, these problems are the result of structures that reward this behavior. Governments benefit from increasing their power (easy to do with ubiquitous surveillance) while corporations want to maximize their earnings (which means increasing power and knowledge, both achieved easily through surveillance). To fix the issue, we have to trash the systems that encourage these activities.

The structures of our society need to be re-balanced to distribute power as horizontally as possible. Hierarchical structures which reward concentration of power (and thus encourage surveillance) need to be dismantled in favor of truly democratic systems. By dispersing power, we eliminate the benefit of surveillance and other power-grabbing behavior as the system itself prevents this consolidation. We need an economic system that discourages exploitation of data (and labor while we're at it) for corporate (or personal) profit.

There are no other options to protect ourselves from the panopticon than completely dismantling the two systems that created it. End of story.

Our Dark Future is a catalog of the systems that are building this dystopia, of the effects on our world, and occasionally the small wins and what we can do to fight the rot.

If all this seems radical, that's because it is. If it seems impossible, that's because you're not an optimist.

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh and released under CC BY-SA