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 Fragile Digital World Described By Zeynep Tufkeci Invites Smashing

In “The Looming Digital Meltdown” (New York Times, January 7th), Zeynep Tufekci writes,

We have built the digital world too rapidly. It was constructed layer upon layer, and many of the early layers were never meant to guard so many valuable things: our personal correspondence, our finances, the very infrastructure of our lives. Design shortcuts and other techniques for optimization — in particular, sacrificing security for speed or memory space — may have made sense when computers played a relatively small role in our lives. But those early layers are now emerging as enormous liabilities. The vulnerabilities announced last week have been around for decades, perhaps lurking unnoticed by anyone or perhaps long exploited.

This digital world is intertwined with, works for, and is  used by, an increasingly problematic social, economic, and political post-colonial and post-imperial world, one riven by political crisis and  economic inequality, playing host to an increasingly desperate polity sustained and driven, all too often, by a rage and anger grounded in humiliation and shame. Within this world, all too many have had their noses rubbed in the dirt of their colonial and subjugated pasts, reminded again and again and again of how they are backward and poor and dispossessed and shameful, of how they need to play ‘catch  up,’ to show that they are ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ and ‘developed’ in all the right ways.  The technology of the digital world has always been understood as the golden road to the future; it is what will make the journey to the land of the developed possible. Bridge the technological gap; all will be well. This digital world also brought with it the arms of the new age: the viruses, the trojan horses, the malwares, the new weapons promising to reduce the gaping disparity between the rich and the poor, between North and South, between East and West–when it comes to the size of their conventional and nuclear arsenals, a disparity that allows certain countries to bomb yet others with impunity, from close, or from afar. The ‘backward world,’ the ‘poor’, the ‘developing countries’ have understood that besides nuclear weapons, digital weapons can also keep them safe, by threatening to bring the digital worlds of their opponents to their knee–perhaps the malware that knocks out a reactor, or a city’s electric supply, or something else.

The marriage of a nihilistic anger with the technical nous of the digital weapon maker and the security vulnerabilities of the digital world is a recipe for disaster. This world, this glittering world, its riches all dressed up and packaged and placed out of reach, invites resentful assault. The digital world, its basket in which it has placed all its eggs, invites smashing; and a nihilistic hacker might just be the person to do it. An arsenal of drones and cruise missiles and ICBMS will not be of much defense against the insidious Trojan Horse, artfully placed to do the most damage to a digital installation. Self-serving security experts, all hungering for the highly-paid consulting gig, have long talked up this threat; but their greed does not make the threat any less real.

Action As Antidote To Political Anxiety

The spring semester has started today and it is no exaggeration to say that I’ve not gone into any previous semester–over a period extending to the fifteen years I’ve spent here at Brooklyn College–feeling quite as unsettled as I do today. Perhaps it was the third cup of coffee, perhaps it was just the stage-fright that is my usual companion to semester kick-offs. Or perhaps it was just dread. We live in interesting times, and one of the tolls these times exact is a psychological one.

This morning, I met one of my students in my office to go over his plans for an independent study in the philosophy of science this semester. I assigned readings, talked about possible writing assignments, and made some preliminary remarks about how I hoped our fortnightly discussions would go. Our conversation proceeded smoothly in general, but there were a couple of rough spots: first, my student greeted me by asking how I had been, and I found myself unable to answer for a few seconds, and then, when my student told me how he had spending time at JFK providing translation services for the ACLU lawyers helping resolve the fiasco created by Donald Trump’s anti-refugee executive order, I was rendered speechless again.

My student is Egyptian-American; born to, and raised in, America by Egyptian parents . He is one of the brightest and most sincere students I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with here at Brooklyn College. He is hard-working, erudite, passionate, committed to being a good student and a good human being. I am proud of him, and happy to be somehow involved in his education. I am, therefore, protective of him too; I am concerned for his safety and well-being these days. This fear is not a particularly well-formed one, and so it amounts to a species of disabling anxiety. (His country of origin is not one of the blacklisted countries of the executive order, but I was still alarmed to hear his American citizen parents were planning on traveling to Egypt this summer.)

I suspect that what underwrites that my emotional responses to my student’s presence is a deeper worry about my family and friends; there is no doubt that the world today is a more dangerous place than it was on January 19th or November 8th: bigotry and racism have acquired executive power, and it is being exercised vigorously, even if incoherently; political chaos is almost upon us; and much worse apparently awaits.

The only antidote to this quasi-cosmic funk is that old elixir: action. This administration needs toppling and many points of pressure exist in order to do so: pressure on elected representatives to block cabinet nominations for now, and later, against legislative atrocities; financial support to those–like the ACLU and SPLC–fighting legal battles; vigorous public protest, civil disobedience, and direct action, including but not limited to, general strikes. (Perhaps hacktivists will step up and make it harder for the technical infrastructure required to implement Trump and Bannon‘s regime to actually function; on this point, more anon.) Thus far, I’ve written and donated and made a few phone calls; much more needs to be done; therapeutic relief awaits.