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Doc Searls wrote a great, very detailed post this weekend titled Thoughts on privacy where he argues we have passed the point of “Peak Surveillance.” He says, about halfway through the post:
“I can’t prove it, but I do believe we have passed Peak Surveillance. When Edward Snowden’s shit hit the fan in May, lots of people said the controversy would blow over. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our frogs are not fully boiled, and we’re jumping out of the pot. New personal powers will be decentralized. And in cases where those powers are centralized, it will be in ways that are better aligned with individual and social power than the feudal systems of today. End-to-end principles are still there, and still apply. “
Five minutes later, I read an article in the New York Times titled Drug Agents Use Vast Phone Trove, Eclipsing N.S.A.’s which basically explains how the DEA has been paying AT&T for access to all its phone records for at least the last six years and to embed AT&T employees alongside DEA agents and local law enforcement to supply them with phone data going back to 1987. This program is called Hemisphere and – like Fight Club – is not allowed to be talked about. The text from p12 of the official presentation follows:
“All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document. If there is no alternative to referencing a Hemisphere request, then the results should be referenced as information obtained from an AT&T subpoena.”
Searls refers to a quote from Bruce Schneier about our new feudal overlords, which I think is just brilliant.
“Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.
These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.”
And then, I saw the hilariously sad and funny video “I Forgot My Phone.”
I have no idea if we’ve passed Peak Surveillance. But I know we are talking about a lot these days. I’m lucky that I’m married to Amy who has spent an enormous amount of time thinking about privacy (her college thesis was on the right to privacy). Our conversations about this are rich, and it’s caused me to start thinking 20 years in the future about the dynamics. This has happened before and it will happen again. So say we all.
I was shocked for a few minutes last week after I heard that Lavabit committed corporate suicide. I pondered it for a while and then forgot, but two things this weekend caused me to remember it.
The first was the suicide of Cylon Number One (John) near the end of Battlestar Galactica. I didn’t expect it at all (there were a bunch of things in the last three episodes that I didn’t expect.) The other was Barry Eisler’s tweet about Obama’s statement about the NSA (NSFW) from the weekend (Eisler is one of my favorite Mental Floss writers.)
I didn’t see Eisler’s tweet until Sunday morning because of my digital sabbath and it made me think of Lavabit shutting down. And then I had a moment of fear that I was reading it and considering retweeting it. The thought that crossed my mind was “if I retweet this, will the NSA record it somewhere.” Then I decided this was a fear-based reaction that was absurd, but not irrational.
Then I read Homes for Hackers gets a visit from the FBI. My friend Ben, who inspired me to buy a house in the Google Fiberhood in Kansas City, talks about the FBI poking around in his house because he has gigabit Internet. Now, Ben’s a trusting dude so he let the FBI in and was polite, but he speculates that he’s now got a surveillance device in his bathroom.
We are just beginning to understand – and struggle with – the crossover of humans and technology. When you ponder the NSA, it’s starting to feel like a giant computer run by humans, where the computer dominates and the humans are just the mechanics. Sure – the humans want to feel like the ones who are actually running things, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see this evolving along the same lines as Battlestar Galactica.
I accepted a long time ago that I had no actual privacy – that all of my data was being captured somewhere. I gave a talk at my 20th business school reunion in 2008 where I stated directly that “we no longer had any privacy.” But it’s getting worse – fast. Even if we work hard to have privacy, as in using Lavabit to send email, the government can still break through this privacy, or force the service to shut down.
I’m fascinated by all of this. Not scared – fascinated. It’s easy to be cynical, or scared, or angry. But our civilization is going to evolve in very strange and radical ways over the next twenty years. Hang on – it’s going to be a crazy ride.
Near the end of the week last week, the lastest “the US government is spying on US citizens” scandal broke. For 24 hours I tried to ignore it but once big tech companies, specifically Facebook, Google, and Yahoo, started coming out with their denials about being involved in PRISM, I got sucked into all the chatter. I was able to ignore it yesterday because I took a digital sabbath but ended up reading a bunch of stuff about it this morning.
While I’m a strong believer in civil liberties and am opposed to the Patriot Act, I long ago gave up the notion that we have any real data privacy. I’ve regularly fought against attempts at outrageous new laws like SOPA/PIPA but I’m not naive and realize that I’m vastly outgunned by the people who want this kind of stuff. Whenever I get asked if I’ll write huge checks to play big money politics against this stuff, I say no. And recently, I’ve started quoting Elon Musk’s great line at the All Things Digital Conference, “If we give in to that, we’ll get the political system we deserve.”
I read around 50 articles on things this morning. I’m no more clear on what is actually going on as the amount of vagueness, statements covered with legal gunk, illogical statements, and misdirection is extraordinary, even for an issue like this one.
Following are some of the more interesting things I read today.
- We are shocked, shocked…
- Government Says Secret Court Opinion on Law Underlying PRISM Program Needs to Stay Secret
- It’s our own fault… Deal with it.
- Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program
- Is the NSA outsourcing its domestic spying to Israel?
- Nothing To Hide
- No One Is Talking About The Insane Law That Lets Authorities Read Any Email Over 180 Days Old
- Room 641A
- What If China Hacks the NSA’s Massive Data Trove?
And I always thought PRISM was about teleportation.
And finally, the Wikipedia article, like all Wikipedia articles, is the definitive source of all PRISM information at this point, at least to the extent that anything around PRISM is accurate.
Glassboard, a new mobile app for sharing privately with groups, just launched from my friends at Sepia Labs. They’re seeing some good initial coverage from ReadWriteWeb and Macworld and twitter is abuzz with people setting up private groups (which I find oddly amusing – but since there is no way to discover a “private board” – it makes sense.)
Glassboard highlights an interesting dynamic in the market that I’ve referenced before namely that collectively, as the creators and early adopters of technology, we still haven’t figured out the right balance of what information should be public and what should be private, and how this information should be used in the social graph.
Take location information as an example. One of the things Glassboard allows you to share with a group is your location, but they make it just as easy not to share it. You may recall that in March I had a foursquare checkin scare whereby someone tracked me down at a restaurant and called me on the phone to spook me because they knew my location. It worked – that interaction then led to me rethinking how I use my social graph – and, more specifically, how and with whom I share my location.
Location is one of those uniquely personal data points that, when used inappropriately, can leave you (or the people you care about) hugely vulnerable. And even though this vulnerability exists, your location is casually being used by advertisers to send you geo-ads and its being attached to all your photos. On one hand, its a great piece of data that can be really helpful when you need to tell people where you are or where you were, but on the other hand, the ways it can be used inappropriately are innumerable.
The Glassboard folks have recognized the sensitivity of location data and have implemented the strict end user controls over how, when and with whom to use it. They’ve also done a bunch of other interesting and important things in their group sharing app – I encourage you to check it out if you are on iPhone, Android, and Windows Mobile 7.
I’ve had a number of interesting conversions about the intersection of the virtual and the physical world since I wrote the post Did Someone Ruin Foursquare For Me Yesterday? Kashmir Hill in Forbes did a quick email interview with me titled Venture Capitalist Gets Creeped Out by Foursquare which captured a few new thoughts and I spent some time the other night at a TechStars Mentor dinner talking with Alex Rainert, the head of product for Foursquare, who had spent some time digging into this issue to try to figure out what was going on.
When I reflect on this, it’s clearly a “me problem” and not a “Foursquare problem.” Specifically, I’ve been chaotic and much too promiscuous with regard to my social graph. I don’t have a clear rule set about who I accept as friends on different services (I pretty much accept everyone) and as a result don’t have much control over what I broadcast. When I reflect on this, I also realize that it has rendered services like Facebook and LinkedIn largely useless to me as an information consumption mechanism.
Given my social network promiscuity I realize that I’ve fallen into a broadcast-only trap. Basically, I’m broadcasting on all the various services I use, but not consuming much new information, except on Twitter. When I extend this to my overall information consumption pattern, I realize that a lot of signal is once again getting lost in the noise, especially around the RSS feeds that I try to read regularly versus the endless amount of web media that is now distributed by RSS.
Toss in Quora, Stack Exchange, Disqus, and a few other high signal services into the mix and my approach has broken down. While I’m still able to manage my email, I’m struggling to get the right kind of utility out of my social graph.
As a result, I’ve decided to make one of my Q2P1s to rethink and re-architect my entire social graph. While this will require lots of effort, my expectation is that I’ll get two clear benefits out of this. First, I’ll reset how I use my social graph. But more importantly, I’ll get a better handle on the dynamics – and gaps – that exist in using and managing a very active social graph. Once again, I get to use my corner of the universe as a laboratory and hope to find some new important technologies and companies as a result. And I’ll blog the experience so you can help me figure it out while learning from what I do.