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Technological Wizardry

The Washington Post editorial board just suggested that the tension between consumer’s right to encrypt their devices and the government’s legal power to access data with a search warrant could be resolved by magic.

Here is the final paragraph from Friday’s editorial Compromise needed on smartphone encryption:

How to resolve this? A police “back door” for all smartphones is undesirable — a back door can and will be exploited by bad guys, too. However, with all their wizardry, perhaps Apple and Google could invent a kind of secure golden key they would retain and use only when a court has approved a search warrant. Ultimately, Congress could act and force the issue, but we’d rather see it resolved in law enforcement collaboration with the manufacturers and in a way that protects all three of the forces at work: technology, privacy and rule of law.

They also seem to think that Congress could pass a law preventing us from using publicly available encryption technology on computers we own, which seems like a pretty big misunderstanding all be itself. Do you think they also want congress to mandate a secret unlock code for all physical safes sold in the US?

Privacy in context

The following is an email I sent to my father who recently read this piece at The Atlantic (The Philosopher Whose Fingerprints Are All Over the FTC’s New Approach to Privacy), which is all about Professor Helen Nissenbaum’s idea that the privacy of information is all a matter of context and breaches of privacy are not so much about “invasions” of your life as they are about inappropriately taking information from one social context and sharing it with another. If any of you feel weird about me re-publishing on the web, verbatim, a conversation I had with my father, then you instinctively understand this idea of privacy.

Which brings us to the conversation. My father asked “How realistic is this context stuff?”, to which I replied:

I actually audited one of Nissenbaum’s graduate seminars on privacy and technology two years ago when my boss was thinking of writing a book on the subject. Philosophically, I have great respect for the idea; it is powerful and elegant, and seems to neatly summarize what people really care about with these issues. For instance, it explains why Google’s change in data handling this month raised so many hackles: when you start using a particular google service, there are clear expectations about how your data is used and generally you can see it happen, as your searches turn up targeted ads or your email text does the same in gmail, but Google’s decision to pool that /exact same information/ system wide feels like a betrayal of the terms under which you gave the information to them originally.

Part of what has stymied the discussion for a decade is that it makes little sense to talk about this kind of profound shift in how data is processed and used as an “invasion” of privacy. People have, after all, already volunteered the data to Google, or to Facebook, whose many changes designed to push more of your social data into the public represent a string of this kind of context changing. Once you stop talking about “Invasions” your description of the problem becomes both easier for people to understand, and more accurate. You gave Google your email as a postman, it is inappropriate for them to now decide to filter what news you receive based on those messages, just as it would be inappropriate for your postman to cut articles out of your newspaper.

In that sense, I think the context framework will be very helpful to the discussion of privacy related issues and to those people having to decide what actions of regulated organizations are appropriate or inappropriate. Whether the regulations based on this will work, I am not expert enough to venture a guess. This framing of suffers the same weakness as the Supreme Court’s “reasonable expectation” view of privacy in that it relies on ill-defined social norms. This unfortunately comes with the territory since “privacy” is such a norm itself. In the world of technology, where the limits of what is possible and the ways in which those possible ends are achieved shift every year, defining social norms and relating them to individual actions by people in the industry seems a difficult task to say the least. Given how thoroughly the banking and telecoms industries have captures their relevant regulators, I don’t expect any piece of regulation to transform the data-mining industry right now.

That is why I continue to help push technological tools like FreedomBox that are designed to keep as much information as possible decentralized and why I continue to use discrete services, for which I pay, for web hosting, mail, and search. On the plus side, having more people talking about the context sensitive nature of personal information makes advocacy and education much easier, which I am quite pleased about.

The Friendly Patent Tax

For anyone who has wondered whether patents actually help the economy, take a look at Facebook’s recent $40 million dollar purchase of 18 patents on social networking.

Let’s take a look at this situation for a moment. To start with, we should remember that Friendster was sold just last year for $37 million dollars, three million less than the patents alone have now sold for. We should also recognize that these patents are themselves little particles of nonsense. They are government granted monopolies on people making friends because, for instance, they have a friend in common. Friendster patented that. Essentially they took someone’s notebook from an Intro to Sociology class, scribbled “with a computer” in the margins next to each main idea, and sent it to the patent office as 18 different “inventions”.

Most importantly, we need to realize what $40 million is worth. Friendster was in independent operation from 2002 to 2009. That means the patents ended up generating almost $6 million dollars a year, more than then the entire company’s revenue for 2005 (other year’s numbers are harder to find but I’d welcome any pointers in the comments).

Given these facts, what was the economically rational thing for Friendster to do: run a large internet company providing services to 1.5+ million users, with all the server farms, bandwidth deals, administrators, marketers, executives, and developers entailed in running such an operation, or pay people to sit around all day and figure out how to add “with a computer” to novel ideas like “making friends”? One of those activities is generally considered economically productive, but it is the other, the nonsense factory model that ended up making more money.

If patents had never existed, Friendster would still have run their business, had their successes and failures, and passed on their techniques to the next generation of social network companies. Facebook, as one of those more successful companies, would still have $40 million dollars available for doing actual work like paying engineers to improve the features and capabilities of today’s social networking technologies, rather than having to pay their profits backwards in time to avoid being sued over nonsense. I don’t think it is nonsense to say that, in that world, we’d all be better off.

The Census is Private

Last night a local census taker came to my door and asked me a number of personal questions. As anyone reading this likely knows, I care deeply about my privacy, but I was happy to fill out the census. This might seem counter-intuitive, especially given all the apparent controversy over giving personal information to the government, so let me explain.

Initially, I was reluctant to participate as well, but some of the census advertising, and a little independent research, convinced me it was a good idea. Ironically, the advertising convinced me to participate not by explaining how necessary the census is but by highlighting it’s uselessness.

The ads that struck me are from the subway and follow this pattern: How will we know how many ______ to provide is we don’t know how many people there are? Where the blank can be anything from “hospital beds” to “teachers” to “trains”. It is a sensible plea highlighting the relationship between having reliable information about the beneficiaries of government services and the effective administration of those services. Unfortunately it is also obviously outdated.

Do we actually rely on the census figures, taken once every ten years, to plan out how many trains to run or how many hospital beds we need? I certainly hope not. Operating a transit system or hospital in the 21st century involves collecting records more detailed than the census as a daily part of functioning. You simply cannot manage a train schedule or service changes without accurate knowledge of how many people use what trains at what times, nor can you manage hospital scheduling and inventory without knowing how many people needed what medical resources on each day of your management cycle.

The administration of government services does not depend on the information collected by the census, it produces far more accurate and detailed records than the census is set up to collect. If you were worried about the government having information about your private life, don’t worry about the census. Take some of that energy and consider what the government learns about you every time you use a metrocard or pass a toll booth with your ez-pass, or when all our medical records are digitized and centralized. If you believe that not filling out the census will blind the government to the private details of your life, you need to take a better look at the details they already have.

The census is not about spying on you, it is about enfranchising you. The only government service that is apportioned by the census is representation in the national government, and it is the one that determines how much weight all of your concerns and needs for other services have for the next ten years. So I was glad to be counted and encourage anyone else who has avoided the census thus far to stand and be counted as well.

Hopefully, next time around we can dispense with the ritual paperwork and use the information we already have to, more accurately, estimate population, automatically adding millions of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community to the count. Like most efforts to enfranchise the poor and vulnerable, it is going to be an uphill struggle.

Message in a bottle from Hawaii

I’ve been following the Health Care debate since about the middle of the Democratic presidential primary, when all the candidates first announced their plans for how to change things if elected. In that almost two years, I’ve heard a lot about these things: the public option, town hall meetings, teabaggers, Stephen Hawkings, and endless coverage of the National government as if the whole thing were a sports competition about number of Red or Blue votes rather than an important public discussion.

What I didn’t know, until I watched the Daily Show from Feb, 11, 2010, is anything about Hawaii’s health care system, which apparently has achieved almost universal health care coverage via government mandate and has been using this system for the last 40 years. Until that minute I thought there was nothing in the debate that could surprise me anymore.

When Dog the Bounty Hunter, one of the Hawaiians interviewed on the Daily Show’s Hawaii coverage, has a better ability to express the need for health care than the politicians and media personalities whose job it has been to talk about it for the last 18 months, we need to start listening to different people.

I would suggest we start listening to each other.

Here’s the idea. Take $30 but, rather than giving it to a political group or non-profit, go to the store and buy a webcam. Set it up at your computer and record a video on why you care about health care. It can be 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or however long it takes to tell your story.

Public Voices

I’m lucky, my office really cares about making sure we have great health care coverage, but I still have a couple stories to tell about issues my coworkers are having with insurance right now. And then there are all the stories of my friends in their 20’s who are trapped in jobs they would otherwise leave for more rewarding work but can’t for fear of losing health insurance. I have almost as many of those stories as I have friends in their 20’s.

So I’m going to go get a webcam and record a couple minutes worth of video and post it online. Maybe we put the videos on YouTube and tag them “healthcarestories” or maybe one of those non-profits that care about health care will come forward and we can put them all there. Then we watch each other, listen to each other, and vote for the best videos. Find the ones that make you remember why you care.

If we want to influence the “public voices” in broadcast media, we could all throw in a couple dollars and buy some air time for the videos with the most votes. Or maybe that media is hopeless and we run some ads telling people where to come for the sane discussion, like throwing a lifeline to pull people back onto dry land.

Either way, if we can get a million of these video messages in a bottle together, a million people engaged in actually talking about health care rather than screaming about it, we can convince a lot of politicians that their interests lie in listening rather than talking for once.