Resisting Big Data: Interfering With ‘Collaboration,’ Nonconsensually

Consider the various image-sharing databases online: Facebook’s photo stores, Instagram, Flickr. These contain trillions of photographs, petabytes of fragile digital data, growing daily, without limit; every day, millions of users worldwide upload the  images they capture on their phones and cameras to the cloud, there to be stored, processed, enhanced, shared, tagged, commented on. And to be used as learning data for facial recognition software–the stuff that identifies your ‘friends’ in your photos in case you want to tag them.

This gigantic corpus of data is a mere court-issued order away from being used by the nation’s law enforcement agencies to train their own facial surveillance software–to be used, for instance, in public space cameras, port-of-entry checks, correctional facilities, prisons etc. (FISA courts can be relied upon to issue warrants in response to any law enforcement agency requests; and internet service providers and media companies respond with great alacrity to government subpoenas.) Openly used and deployed, that is. With probability one, the NSA, FBI, and CIA have already ‘scraped’, using a variety of methods, these image data stores, and used them in the manner indicated. We have actively participated and collaborated, and continue to do so, in the construction of the world’s largest and most sophisticated image surveillance system. We supply the data by which we may be identified; those who want to track our movements and locations use this data to ‘train’ their artificial agents to surveil us, to report on us if we misbehave, trespass, or don’t conform to whichever spatial or physical or legal or ‘normative’ constraint happens to direct us at any given instant. The ‘eye’ watches; it relies for its accuracy on what we have ‘told’ it, through our images and photographs.

Now imagine a hacktivist programmer who writes a Trojan horse that infiltrates such photo stores and destroys all their data–permanently, for backups are also taken out. This is a ‘feat’ that is certainly technically possible; encryption will not prevent a drive from being formatted; and security measures of all kinds can be breached. Such an act of ‘hacktivism’ would be destructive; it would cause the loss of much ‘precious data’: memories and recollections of lives and the people who live them, all gone, irreplaceable.  Such an act of destruction would be justified, presumably, on the grounds that to do so would be to cripple a pernicious system of surveillance and control. Remember that your photos don’t train image recognition systems to recognize just you; they also train it to not recognize someone else as you; our collaboration does not just hurt us, it hurts others; we are complicit in the surveillance and control of others.

I paint this admittedly unlikely scenario to point attention to a few interesting features of our data collection and analysis landscape: a) we participate, by conscious action and political apathy, in the construction and maintenance of our own policing; b) we are asymmetrically exposed because our surveillers enjoy maximal secrecy while we can draw on none; c) collective, organized resistance is so difficult to generate that the most effective political action might be a quasi-nihilist act of loner ‘civil disobedience’–if you do not cease and desist from ‘collaborating,’ the only choice left to others still concerned about their freedom from surveillance might to be nonconsensually interrupt such collaboration.

The Great Bob Mueller Seduction

Blood is in the water: the president of the United States appears to have committed ‘obstruction of justice.’ We know this because a ‘legal dream team’ headed by a special prosecutor, a former head of the FBI, is conducting a long, expensive, and detailed investigation of all the president’s men. The nefarious activities suspected to have been undertaken are varied and detailed; like most Americans, I’m entirely unsure of the precise particulars of the tangled web that is being unwoven for us. But those details seem unimportant; for at the end of it all lies deliverance, the impeachment of Donald Trump, the eviction of the carpetbaggers currently occupying the White House.

For some time now, via television and talk show and social media, we have been treated to the spectacle of–I do not think I exaggerate–millions of Americans salivating over the legal particulars of Bob Mueller’s investigation: how detailed and thorough its collection of evidence and marshaling of witnesses is; its skillful deployment of carrot and–a very big and threatening–stick in making legal plea deals; and so on. An entire cottage industry of tweeting experts has sprung up to inform us, in hushed and breathless tones, of how legally significant the latest development is and just how much shit is currently splattering various fans; these tweets go viral, urged hither and thither, as if merely by talking about how bad things are going to get for Trump and his men, their end can be hastened. There is much gleeful talk of how those  working in the Trump administration will be bankrupted by their legal fees as they are subpoenaed till the cows come home; you cannot escape the clutches of the ‘ace prosecutors’ that this paragon of virtue–a former FBI head–has lined up.

The worst features of our  legal system are on display: the staggering legal fees; the unfettered power of prosecutors. Give ’em hell, we say, because we know the legal system can destroy your life in all these ways; we’re just happy these big guns are turned against our political enemies. (Even if they have never been turned against the corporations that rule the republic’s roost.) It is a strange business for a nation which plays host to the moral and legal atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’ to be so cheering on a bunch of prosecutors–a demographic unfettered in its legal power, and persistently accused of misconduct. It is a peculiar business too that the FBI–whose investigations into political activists have, historically and currently, marked it out as anything but apolitical–is being hailed as the savior of the American Republic and our political knight in armor.

What Mueller’s investigation has done, of course, is turn political resistance to Trump into a spectator sport: we sit back–indeed, many have said just that–grab the popcorn and watch the shit show go down, and the superheroes, er, special prosecutors, will come to our rescue, ridding us of this blight. The legal system and its investigations appear to be working as a sponge, soaking up the political will and energy of Americans who otherwise might have been engaged in serious thinking about their political options. Instead, they have handed over their political agency to a bunch of lawyers appointed guardians of the state and our polity.

But it isn’t the lack of law that got us here; it is that plenty of institutional deformations are written into our laws and therefore respected; they demand for themselves a prima facie legal obligation, because they are burnished by the aura of the law, which is being enhanced by the ‘legal investigation’ under way. But the undemocratic Senate is legal; gerrymandering is legal; Supreme Court rulings that lock particular interpretations of the US Constitution into place are legal; the Electoral College is legal. Governments can be shut down legally; the US Senate can legally–under one interpretation–refuse to even consider a President’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Federal Courts by the Republican Party and the corresponding stuffing of the Federal Courts by Federalist Society nominees was all legal. No dictator need abuse any legal American institutions in order to become a totalitarian despot. (This point has been made, quite eloquently, several times over, by Corey Robin; here is one variant of that claim.) That despotic power is built, legally, into American political institutions, all ready and ripe for hijacking by bad actors. Those bad actors are here, and they’ve hijacked the polity.

We are witnessing an old maneuver, one oft-repeated: take an existing political or social problem, subject it to the law, and pretend it has been solved. The authority of the law, its ideological entrenchment is reinforced, but the social or political problem remains unsolved. What will Bob Mueller’s team rid this republic of? A president, and very optimistically, his vice president too. Mueller cannot impeach the Republican Party (which will, in any case, not impeach Trump.) How then, will this nation’s political crisis be resolved? Mueller’s actions will not bring the Republican Party’s nihilism to heel. Indeed, an even worse hangover awaits us, if as is likely, this entire expensive legal investigation will end only with Trump riding out his term unscathed and going on to greater riches ‘outside.’ When the smoke clears and this prosecution is over, we will be left with the same severely compromised republic we had before. No team of special prosecutors can bring that to heel. We have outsourced the hard work to someone else, expecting to be rescued from a mess we made ourselves. This is ours; we have to clean this up.

Leaking Furore Par For The Course For Nation That Over-Classifies

America over-classifies information. The designations ‘secret,’ ‘top secret,’ ‘for your eyes only,’ and many others like them are thrown around too freely; too many folders and dossiers receive the dreaded stenciled stamp that indicates their contents may not be perused by the wrong people. The consequences of this bingeing on classification are predictable: all around us, ‘leaks’ and ‘unauthorized disclosures’ take place; many stand accused of dangerous ‘whistleblowing,’ of ‘criminal activity,’ of espionage. When all is secret, violating secrecy restrictions is easy–as is posturing as a protector of ‘secrecy vital to the national interest’; and the penalties for such ‘violations’ can be ratcheted up arbitrarily. (Just ask Chelsea Manning, who is due for early release tomorrow from a three-decade prison sentence–thanks to a presidential commutation.)

In this national context, the furore over the alleged disclosure by Donald Trump of supposedly top-secret information to visiting Russian dignitaries looks ever so precious. Unsurprisingly, no one is quite clear–or can be–about what was leaked, and what its significance was; what we do know, or are offered words of reassurance to that effect is Something Very Very Secret was disclosed. We cannot find out how secret or how important, or indeed, any other relevant details, because those, of course, are a Secret. I do not doubt for a second that Donald Trump is a bumbling incompetent, a buffoon who should not be allowed within a mile of the Oval Office, that his foreign policy blunders may yet be the death of us all. But I’m afraid the mere reporting that Something Very Very Secret is now no longer so fails to move me when it is quite evident from many other contexts that very often, such classification is a case of bureaucratic overkill. Especially when the reassurances that such a disclosure should be considered an actionable problem are forthcoming from the very people who simultaneously over-classify while demanding ever more cover, legal and otherwise, for their activities.

The reaction to Donald Trump’s ‘leaking’ has been predictable: impeachment! These dreams of impeachment, in response to ‘unauthorized disclosures of classified information’ are not just a political fantasy; they also perpetuate a long-running fraud on the American polity–that when the government and the administration decides to get into a tizzy about some supposed ‘violation of secrecy’ it gets the citizenry worked up in response. At that moment, all questioning of the unhealthy layers of classification and secrecy that continue to build up around our rulers’ activities is suspended, and we all chime in with syncopated chorus of outrage: How dare you disclose?

It has been a depressing feature of ‘liberal’ responses to the Trump administration that so many unsavory political alliances have now become increasingly respectable: among them, none will be more surprising than the willingness of so-called ‘liberal and ‘progressive’ factions to find, in the Deep State and its national security agencies, the ones that have done so much to abrogate the civil liberties of so many Americans, their best political allies.

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:

 

The Most Likely Fate Of The Trump Presidency

Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President? Expressed in abstract schema form, this question requires an answer considerably more nuanced than the simple ‘yes’ that results if asking ‘Should Americans be cheering as the Deep State brings down an American President as clownishly, offensively incompetent as Donald Trump? (Today’s rambling press conference was merely the latest in a series of incoherent public speaking performances.) Unelected string-pullers bringing down an elected representative of the people–even if one who jets off to a golfing resort every weekend–sounds like the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Cheer now if you will, and pay later when the Deep State happens to dislike a representative you do like. (My ‘yes’ clashes with the anguished ‘no’ that would emanate from the millions of Trumpistas still hoping their anointed Savior will, any moment now, stop bragging about his election and actually get down to some work.)

That things have come to this is an acute indication of just how far through the looking-glass our polity has gone; the national security apparatus–or at least, its intelligence component–is in open warfare with the executive branch, and it is not clear that this battle will end any time soon. If more dirt emerges on the President, including evidence of illegal activity–such as directing Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian intelligence–this Presidency would be over. (As before, I do not think Trump will be impeached but I think he could be persuaded to resign by his legal advisers. Easier money, even if not as plentiful, will be waiting on the paranoid conservative talk show and lecture circuit; book deals and bestseller lists are all but guaranteed; our culture is truly degraded, and will make ample room for Trump even if he is exiled from the White House.)

There is another possibility, of course. Which is that the Republican Party, whose ability to plumb the depths is apparently still not clear to those who hope that an investigation will be launched into Trump’s malfeasance, will bring in an experienced operator–perhaps someone like James Baker–to calm the waters, negotiate a truce, and start running day-to-day affairs at the White House. The Republican Party will then have the best of all worlds: they will be able to keep a President in power, the loss of whose loyal ‘base’ cannot be afforded; they will be able to exert some control over policy and legislation; and they will be able to keep the most hostile components of the opposition to Trump at bay. I expect this to be the most likely outcome of the current ‘fubar‘ state of affairs. Such a development will certainly come as some disappointment to those of us who were settling down with the popcorn to see what further entertainment was coming down the pike, but I think most of the other President Pence possibilities that have been floated are extremely unlikely. The Republican Party’s bottom line has always been party above country, and all other outcomes put the country first.

Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

Apple’s ‘Code Is Speech’ Argument, The DeCSS Case, And Free Software

In its ongoing battle with federal law enforcement agencies over its refusal to unlock the iPhone, Apple has mounted a ‘Code is Speech’ defense arguing that “the First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling Apple to make code.” This has provoked some critical commentary, including an article by Neil Richards, which argues that Apple’s argument is “dangerous.”

Richards alludes to some previous legal wrangling over the legal status of computer code, but does not name names. Here is an excerpt from my book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software (co-authored with Scott Dexter) that makes note of a relevant court decision and offers arguments for treating code as speech protected under the First Amendment. (To fully flesh out these arguments in their appropriate contexts, do read Chapters 4 and 5 of Decoding Liberation. I’d be happy to mail PDFs to anyone interested.) Continue reading