Report On Brooklyn College Teach-In On ‘Web Surveillance And Security’

Yesterday, as part of ‘The Brooklyn College Teach-In & Workshop Series on Resistance to the Trump Agenda,’ I facilitated a teach-in on the topic of ‘web surveillance and security.’ During my session I made note of some of the technical and legal issues that are play in these domains, and how technology and law have conspired to ensure that: a) we live in a regime of constant, pervasive surveillance; b) current legal protections–including the disastrous ‘third-party doctrine‘ and the rubber-stamping of governmental surveillance ‘requests’ by FISA courts–are simply inadequate to safeguard our informational and decisional privacy; c) there is no daylight between the government and large corporations in their use and abuse of our personal information. (I also pointed my audience to James Grimmelmann‘s excellent series of posts on protecting digital privacy, which began the day after Donald Trump was elected and continued right up to inauguration. In that post, Grimmelmann links to ‘self-defense’ resources provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Ars Technica.)

I began my talk by describing how the level of surveillance desired by secret police organizations of the past–like the East German Stasi, for instance–was now available to the NSA, CIA, and FBI, because of social networking systems; our voluntary provision of every detail of our lives to these systems is a spook’s delight. For instance, the photographs we upload to Facebook will, eventually, make their way into the gigantic corpus of learning data used by law enforcement agencies’ facial recognition software.

During the ensuing discussion I remarked that traditional activism directed at increasing privacy protections–or the enacting of ‘self-defense’ measures–should be part of a broader strategy aimed at reversing the so-called ‘asymmetric panopticon‘: citizens need to demand ‘surveillance’ in the other direction, back at government and corporations. For the former, this would mean pushing back against the current classification craze, which sees an increasing number of documents marked ‘Secret’ ‘Top Secret’ or some other risible security level–and which results in absurd sentences being levied on those who, like Chelsea Manning, violate such constraints; for the latter, this entails demanding that corporations offer greater transparency about their data collection, usage, and analysis–and are not able to easily rely on the protection of trade secret law in claiming that these techniques are ‘proprietary.’ This ‘push back,’ of course, relies on changing the nature of the discourse surrounding governmental and corporate secrecy, which is all too often able to offer facile arguments that link secrecy and security or secrecy and business strategy. In many ways, this might be the  most onerous challenge of all; all too many citizens are still persuaded by the ludicrous ‘if you’ve done nothing illegal you’ve got nothing to hide’ and ‘knowing everything about you is essential for us to keep you safe (or sell you goods’ arguments.

Note: After I finished my talk and returned to my office, I received an email from one of the attendees who wrote:

 

Nietzsche’s Six Methods For Combating Facebook Distraction

Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)

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The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar.  Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.

That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.

Our mood rises and falls in sync.

As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.

Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.

On Self-Censoring Opinions, Verbal Or Written

I would like to consider myself a plain-speaking person, the kind who is always able to ‘speak his mind,’ ‘say what he is thinking,’ ‘tell us what he really thinks,’ and so on. But I’m afraid the evidence suggests that all too frequently, in all too many conversational spaces, I bite my tongue and hold my peace, suppressing words that might otherwise have found expression. A written counterpart to this behavior exists, of course: in online discussion spaces too–like this one, for instance–I do not venture an opinion in many domains. We do all do so for reasons of propriety and etiquette, of course, and indeed, such self-restraint is often a virtue of sorts, but there are many other reasons for not speaking up or holding forth.

Sometimes I engage in such self-censorship because, quite simply, I have nothing to add to an ongoing conversation–I sense that what I’m about to say would be redundant or not as perspicuous as other contributions to it. I like to talk, and like anyone else, consider my opinions to be ‘correct’ ones, so such holding back does not come easily to me.

Far more interesting is the case, of course, when I hold back for fear of provoking a reaction I do not have the time or the inclination to ‘process.’ This situation should also be familiar to us: for instance, we do not rise to the bait at a family gathering when a relative says something offensive (every family has, I suppose, a list of topics that must not be broached on such occasions.)  Or sometimes, even more interestingly, we sense the opinion we express will be misunderstood, misinterpreted, taken out of context, its ‘subtleties’ ignored–all resulting in a cascade of vituperative condemnation directed our way. We despair over ever being able to ‘explain’ the thesis we would proffer, and sense the dispute that would arise as we navigated the various discursive obstacles that would be placed in the way of such clarification would be insuperable. Perhaps we would dig a deeper hole for ourselves as we attempted to  ‘clarify’ what we meant to say. (These are, of course, indications that we should consider whether we should wait a while to see if we can revise a draft of what we want to say to see if its content can be made sharper; such considerations apply equally to verbal and written opinions.)

Such self-censorship is, I think, more prevalent in the online context. The infamous ‘tweet storms’ that result when an inexpertly written and inarticulate tweet–begging for emendation and clarificatory follow-up on a ‘sensitive’ subject makes the rounds–can easily overwhelm the hapless offender. So can the vitriol on a Facebook status commentary space. Writing one comment–or tweet–after another in a desperate attempt to patch the leaks in the dyke is all too often a losing cause. Better to suck it up and retreat to lick your wounds, bruised but considerably wiser, forewarned and forearmed for your next foray online.

 

Tim Parks On Writerly Conformity

At The New York Review of Books blog, Tim Parks writes of the “general and ever increasing anxious desire to receive positive feedback” on writing:

It is a situation that leads to…an intensification of conformity, people falling over themselves to be approved of….Announce an article…on Facebook and you can count, as the hours go by, how many people have looked at it, clicked on it, liked it, etc….Everything conspires to have us obsessively attached to the world’s response to whatever we do.

Franzen [suggests] that, simply by offering us the chance to check constantly whether people are talking about us, the Internet heightens a fear of losing whatever popularity we may have achieved: “the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness….the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”

Is it really possible, then, to be free as a writer? Free from an immediate need for money, free from the need to be praised, free from the concern of how those close to you will respond to what you write….Perhaps the best one can ever achieve is a measure of freedom, in line with your personal circumstances….So long as it’s compatible with regular writing, the day job is never to be disdained. A steady income allows you to take risks.

Many of my blog posts here–indeed, a significant percentage–evoke not even a single ‘Like’ on Facebook. They ‘generate’ a few views here–mostly from people who have found them through search engines.  They have, as it were, ‘fallen stillborn from the press.’ This does me little economic or professional damage–but it often does a number on my ego. In that dimension, I sometimes find myself infected with that most damaging of thoughts: Perhaps I should write something people will read?  Like the kind of stuff that people ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ on Facebook or pass around on Twitter? On topics that articles like those were concerned with?

Phew. The temptation is great; the abyss lurks close by, only a step or two away. I’m saved–in the economic and professional sense–by the fact that, as Parks recommends, I have a day job. I do not have to sell myself too much. (I do descend into some groveling when I’m trying to get the word out about pieces that I think, for political reasons, deserve wider circulation.) Moreover, as I have to often remind myself, I always intended this blog as a space in which to ‘stay in touch’ with writing, to tentatively approach some ideas and write them down, to ‘try things out.’ (It also functions as a bit of a diary, a journal, which, when you come to think about it, doesn’t really need any readers.) Perhaps the most positive side-effect of my writing here has been that some of the posts here suggest themselves as starting points for further exploration, and yet others have found themselves–suitably modified–integrated into other works of mine.  Indeed, that fact alone could suggest my blog has been a ‘success.’ Even if this post gets no ‘Likes’ and no RTs.

Nietzsche On The Interpersonal Dynamics Of Social Networks

This afternoon, I sat down to read through the portions of HumanAll Too Human (Section VI – ‘Man in Society’ or ‘In Relations with Others’) that I had assigned to my Social Philosophy class, and once again, was struck by how acute and perspicuous so many of its aphorisms are–especially when it comes to anticipating the awkwardness and gaucherie and pretensions of our online social networks.

For instance, on the business of avatars, Nietzsche offers the following:

294 Copies. Not infrequently, one encounters copies of important people; and, as with paintings, most people prefer the copy to the original.

On the burdens of the kind of ‘friendships’ that are now increasingly common on social media:

296 Lack of intimacy. Lack of intimacy among friends is a mistake that cannot be censured without becoming irreparable.

On the kinds of knowledge and posturing that social networks encourage and facilitate:

302 Preference for certain virtues. We lay no special value on the possession of a virtue until we perceive its complete absence in our opponent.

305 Balance of friendship. Sometimes in our relationship to another person, the right balance of friendship is restored when we put a few grains of injustice on our own side of the scale.

On the ways and manner in which we express ourselves in meeting spaces online:

303 Why one contradicts. We often contradict an opinion, while actually it is only the tone with which it was advanced that we find disagreeable.

307 When paradoxes are appropriate. At times, one can win clever people over to a principle merely by presenting it in the form of an outrageous paradox.

On kinds of humble bragging:

313  Vanity of the tongue. Whether a man hides his bad qualities and vices or confesses them openly, his vanity wants to gain an advantage by it in both cases: just note how subtly he distinguishes between those he will hide his bad qualities from and those he will face honestly and candidly.

On being embroiled in pointless disputation and flame wars:

315 Required for debate. Whoever does not know how to put his thoughts on ice should not engage in the heat of argument.

317 Motive for attack. We attack not only to hurt a person, to conquer him, but also, perhaps, simply to become aware of our own strength.

326 Silence. For both parties, the most disagreeable way of responding to a polemic is to be angry and keep silent: for the aggressor usually takes the silence as a sign of disdain.

On the provision of a performance space by social networks:

325 Presence of witnesses. One is twice as happy to dive after a man who has fallen into the water if people are present who do not dare to.

And its associated lack of privacy:

327 The friend’s secret. There will be but few people who, when at a loss for topics of conversation, will not reveal the more secret affairs of their friends.

We should not be too surprised; we import, into our online meeting spaces, the dynamics of ‘offline’ interactions that have always been visible to the acute observer of the social scene. As Nietzsche undoubtedly was.

Are There No Ethically Uncompromised Lunches In The Universe?

Once upon a time a farmer told his neighbors that they could use his land for ‘free’–as a kind of community recreational space. His neighbors were told they could set up little stalls. where they could play music, show off their handicrafts, display family photo albums, and of course, walk over to their friends’ spaces and chat with them. A large sign in small print that hung outside the entrance to the field informed the farmer’s neighbors how they should behave when they were on the premises. Most families stopped briefly to read the sign but intimidated by the number of the words on the sign, and the twisted prose, which appeared to have been composed by committee, they moved on, trusting their neighbor to do well by them.

The community meeting and recreational space soon bloomed; the number of stalls grew rapidly. The local residents got to know each other much better and many enjoyed the opportunity to inspect the personal details of their neighbors’ homes and lives. Indeed, a visit to the ‘meeting space’ became an integral part of most people’s routines; stop in for a bit, ‘check in,’ say hi to a few folk, show off your new baby, brag about your car, your vacation, and so on.

The local folk often wondered why the farmer had been so ‘generous.’ What was he getting in exchange for this ‘gift’? Cynics talked about the impossibility of free lunches, and sure enough, it was becoming clear there wasn’t one to be had in this ‘community space.’ For the benevolent farmer was indeed exacting a price of sorts.

The farmer had many business associates who wanted to sell the locals their goods–fertilizer for their fields, goods that could be gifted to their children on their birthdays, clothes to be worn at their weddings, and so on. To find out what the locals’ tastes were would have required conducting expensive, tedious market surveys; the farmer’s business associates would have had to go from door to door, asking people to fill out forms. But in this space, the farmers neighbors happily gave this information away without being asked. And the reason this information was ‘given away’ was that it was ‘being taken’ as well.

Hidden cameras and microphones recorded their comings and goings and sundry activities: who they met, what they ate at their friends’ stalls, and indeed, what they ate at home, because the locals proudly showed photos of their food at their stalls (you could build some walls around your stall but most people, finding the construction of these to be too onerous, just went in for a wall-less design), what clothes they wore, who their ‘best friends’ were, who they talked to for medical advice, who they asked for help when the going was tough, what kind of music they listened to (and played for their neighbors by way of demonstration.)

When news of the hidden cameras and microphones broke, some of the locals were irate. They didn’t like the idea of being ‘spied on’ and worried that the local potentate, always eager to exert his control over the land just a little more efficiently, would find this sort of information very useful. Yet others thought that the local robber barons, who controlled the potentate in any case, would grow more powerful as a result of knowing so much about them. And some complained that the hidden microphones sometimes reported their conversations and displays to the farmer, who cracked down on them if he didn’t like what they said or what they showed off.

But others hushed their concerns, using that ancient piece of wisdom, which the robber barons themselves had promulgated: How can you look a ‘free’ gift horse in the mouth? You got to use this space for ‘free,’ didn’t you? When the locals said that they hadn’t signed on for this surveillance, yet others told them to read the sign on the entrance carefully, and if they didn’t like it, to leave, and to take their stalls with them. So some did even as they said the sign on the entrance was vague and unspecific. Yet others, finding that the space had become an indispensable arena for communication for matters pertaining to the local village and shire, stayed on.

But many continued to ask themselves: Was it a fair ‘deal’? Indeed, was it a deal at all? Had the farmer really behaved like a neighbor in spying on his neighbors after he had invited them to use his land for ‘free’? Did the non-existence of free lunches in the universe entail that those lunches had to be ethically compromised too?