Technology, privacy, censorship

Disclaimer: term technology should be understood as a consumer technology, or even better: consumer electronics.

Introduction

The rapid evolution of technology brings with it fundamental changes in many aspects of our life. What was not a concern of any kind a century (or even a decade) ago, might be a pressing issue, or a determining factor in quality of individual’s life, nowadays.

Let’s take an example of food, which luckily we have an abundance of, in both the amount and variety. My grandparents, who lived in a small village, themselves grew mostly everything they’ve consumed. Their main concern was not what to choose, but to have anything to eat at all.

Nowadays most of the food we eat comes from corporations, transported across enormous distances, with one motive: to make money. It’s not their responsibility (nor desire) that we eat well, that’s something we need to care about. Reading labels—choosing good, if possible organic and locally produced food—is one of newer, yet very important concerns.

Even the most caress of people are becoming aware of an effect food has on their life. Indeed they do not grow their own organic food, but they do understand that McDonald’s is not exactly their friend. There’s still a long way to go though, we’re still at the dawn of a healthy eating habits; when it comes to privacy, surrender of which has equally or even more devastating consequences, we’re not even at the dawn yet.

Technological advances seems attractive, positive sides are being constantly emphasized by marketing experts and tech evangelists, but we should not forget to evaluate the progress rationally and ask hard questions from time to time. New exciting technologies brings with them elements, yet not morally nor legally defined.

Failed to rationally evaluate our eating habits, leads to negative short and long term consequences, the same happens when we fail to rationally define healthy privacy boundaries, both as individuals and as a society.

Impacts on Individuals

It should be understood, that advances of consumer technology, mostly have more or less degrading effect on our privacy. That’s always true for devices which contains smart in their name, and/or cloud services. Whenever those two terms are mentioned, you should understand that there are privacy concerns.

Social network profiles and irrationally posted, sometimes very sensitive, information, might not be seen only by our friends, but could potentially expose our weak sides to anyone who desires to do us harm in any way. This can be abused in a emotional or even a material way, for example, giving a robber an idea when the house is empty[1]; on this topic, there’s a very sinister case from Slovenia, when in 1997 four people were killed in an armed robbery. Allegedly one of the victim was know to publicly brag about the amount of money and gold he keeps at home.[2]

The second problem is with systems to which we upload our data. Will corporations in charge act in an ethical way, and not share our personal information with other companies and/or government(s)? Even if they will, there’s a good chance that a system itself will be compromised, as it often happens, resulting in personal information being exposed. One such example is from October 2013, a security breach that hit Adobe, exposing sensitive and personal data of 38 million active users.[3] Another is from 2014, when a big collection private photos of various celebrities, many containing nudity, were publicly release. Photos were obtained via a breach of Apple’s cloud services suite iCloud.[4]

Unfortunately good practices, when it comes to privacy, are being actively discouraged, on multiple levels. Majority of web communities and services (like Facebook, Google+, YouTube) require (or encourage) people to identify with a real name. For example, from Facebook’s help page on what names are allowed: “Facebook is a community where people use their authentic identities. We require people to provide the name they use in real life; that way, you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.”[5] My emphasizes.

There’s no mechanism in place to verify whether user actually provided a real name. That’s actually good, I’d argue, we do not need system where anonymity cannot exists. But the problem is, that the statement from Facebook is misleading, it deliberately establish an illusion of safety and hence encourage users to act irrational.

What users of Facebook would need, is a solid understanding, of the following fact: Facebook cannot guarantee that people are actually using their real names. Think twice before you do. Furthermore, you’re connecting to a network which can be compromised on multiple levels. Your personal information, hence, might be exposed to the wider society. When connecting with other users, you absolutely cannot trust that the person on the other side is who she claims to be, because her own account could be compromised, or she could be impersonated. In light of all this, providing your real name, or any sensitive information for that matter, either by posting them or privately sharing them with other users, is very unwise.

But Facebook, or Google, will never state anything like that. They’ll be actively promoting an idea of security and encoring their users to push as much of personal data as possible. Actually, even worst, they’ll mislead their uses into believing that proving more of sensitive personal information (like a phone number of example) can lead into a better security.

The matter is further complicated though, as we’re not talking only about volunteer handing of personal information on individual level. As I wrote in one of my previous posts, even if an individual decide not to create an account on Facebook (or any big social network for that matter), a lot of his information is still being collected, without him even know it. Furthermore, there are a new technologies, like Google Glass and Google Street View project, which are on the very edge or the law, and are (or should be) concerning.

Google Glass did raise some outrage, Karyne Levy writes: “first there was the woman who claimed she was attacked for wearing Google Glass in a bar in the Lower Haight neighborhood in San Francisco. Then came the bar that actively banned Google Glass from the premises. That bar was soon followed by other bars and even a pet store…”[6]

At this point, it’s hard to say whether it was truly a privacy concern. We’re talking about a product, which was limited to a couple of chosen people, hence there’s a valid question, if outrage will still be there, when Glass will be publicly released and massively adopted (if ever).

Produces like Google Glass will have a tremendous effect on both, those how will embrace them and those who will refuse them.

Impacts on Society

I’ll dare to assert, that governments are equally exited about technological progress as we are. But for different purposes.

USA government, with a help of IT corporations, is gathering a frightful amount of information of their own citizens, and people from all around the world.

Consider for example a global surveillance program, code-named “ECHELON” established in 1971, which was not widely acknowledged by governments and the mainstream media until the disclosure by Edward Snowden, who ironically, ended up in Russia, as no other country, none of the “free” western nations, accepted his asylum request.[7]

“ECHELON” was established by the Five Eyes alliance, which includes United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Many countries around the world, have been targeted by this alliance, which aims to achieve Total Information Awareness by mastering the Internet with analytical tools.

Nancy Murray writes about Total Information Awareness Program (or TIA), in Race & Class: “In recent years, a secretive domestic surveillance apparatus has been created in the US in the name of counter-terrorism. Based on the notion of ‘predictive policing’, it aims to gather such detailed information about individuals — ‘total information awareness’ — that it is able to anticipate crimes before they are committed.”[8]

Western governments appears to be an embodiment of Orwellian vision, they come so close, that one must wonder whether they were inspired by his writings. But perhaps it’s vice versa, and what he was writing about is inevitable, and predictable; technology is getting widely integrated into all aspects of our life. More sophisticated technologies, acquires more information from individuals, and allows better gathering and processing of those information. Governments, of course, cannot resist tapping into this massive body of data. Keeping this in mind, one can construct quite sharp, and I must add grim, picture of future.

It’s not hard to imagine that many of the technology we use nowadays will in future, or does already, have a military implication. Julian Assagnge wrote in When Google Met WikiLeaks, “the mapping data gathered by Google Street View project, … may one day be instrumental for navigating military or police robots…”[9] We make sure that we feed Google and Facebook with as much of personal information as possible, so that one day, US government will be able to destabilize our local government efficiently; but perhaps now I’m exaggerating.

Things are moving into somehow disturbing direction. One of the ideas at PayPal was to replace dying concept of passwords with “vein recognition, technology built into pills that are then swallowed, or direct implants into human bodies.”[10] While they clearly stated that’s not something they’re developing, an idea is out there. Technology is not a problem, the only barrier is public perception, which is looser each year, with each generation of new gadgets, which pushes what’s acceptable and what’s not, one step further.

Snowden’s disclosure and documents being published by WikiLeaks didn’t have a dramatic (enough) effect on a western societies, which are (with little understanding of the matter) collectively pointing their fingers at China and North Korea, worrying about censorship there. Doesn’t this show us, just how masterful western propaganda is? “When I speak in China,” explains Andre Vltchek “I am not censored. … I was on CCTV—their National TV—and for half an hour I was talking about very sensitive issues. And I felt much freer in Beijing than when the BBC interviews me, because the BBC doesn’t even let me speak, without demanding a full account of what exactly I am intending to say.”[11]

Countries like China and Russia are constantly under a western magnifying glass, and western media has tremendous power and reach. Andre Vltchek writes that, “the former Soviets and the Chinese were, and are, well informed about capitalism, about Western views on Communism. So who is more open and who is better informed? Look at Chinese bookstores: plenty of capitalist literature. Look at U.S. or European bookstores: hardly any Communist Chinese literature.”

But in general, is it really so hard to understand censorships in China? As I stated above, west have an incredibly fine-tuned system of propaganda, and tremendousness body of acquired personal information about people from all around the world. USA has a long history of destabilizing governments, which were not in agreement with them, and planting their own puppet regimes. I’m in no support of censorship, but the matter is complex, and we should ask these though question, rather than seeing problem as black and white. Andre Vltchek says, “I am arguing that they [Chinese] should actually be very aware and very careful about the Western propaganda targeting their country. I told them, it’s not really there to inform you, it’s to break the country.”[11]

Here is where no desire for privacy feed back into the system, which swallow and process peoples’ data, to refines its methods, for better manipulation of those same people.

Conclusion

As we see, and should be clear, technology has tremendous impact, on a most basic, personal level, all the way to the national and geopolitical plain. It should be hence, taken seriously; we should question it rationally, and use a good judgment when we interact with it. We should also establish a healthy boundaries when it comes to privacy, and respect boundaries other people have set for themselves.

Recently I was watching a short report about smart devices, where viewers got served much exaggerated vision of a bright future, where technology will resolve much of our personal and wider, societal problems. At no point was mentioned anything about privacy, and no concerns were raised whatsoever. I’ve got feeling I’m watching a cheap advertisement, encouraging people to buy smart[anything], in a style of TopShop.

Don’t get me wrong though, I see my views as moderate, and I by no means am technophobic, as a matter of fact, I truly do believe there’s a good side in a progress of technology. Unfortunately, whenever an individual expresses concerns regarding privacy and surveillance, he’s quickly labeled as technophobic and paranoid. This brings me back to the beginning, and strange tendency of our society to mislabel constructive habits; individual who’ll choose to eat healthy, simply so, may be widely categorized as a new age hipsters, with orthorexic tendencies. But on the other hand, there’s a fat acceptance movement which of members are not only stating that there’s nothing wrong with being dangerously overweight, but that such destructive habits are in fact positive and beautiful.[12] While I’ll not argue with an esthetic side of the matter, morbid obesity being healthy, in one way or another, surely is not.

Similarly, privacy aware people are being labeled as paranoid and irrational, but on the other hand, tech evangelists are being applauded, when selling TopShop-style fairytale of a technological Eden.

Mastering good habits, when it comes both to privacy and eating, nowadays, is necessity. Education and encouragement of constructive habits is something we desperately need. With the evolution of technology, we must adopt and evolve our habits. Finding a middle path might be challenging but, for survival of individuals and society at large, urgent.