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07 March 2009

Transparency, reciprocal accountability and ideology

First, I would like to direct the reader's attention to Nicholas Wilt's Overview in his apparently defunct blog Transparent Century. The subject matter is dear to my heart, and I hope blogging will resume there.

First, I would like to comment on the tone of the post. It's not so subtly stated that the author is of the view that the private sector is always the lesser evil:

Such government-arbitrated surveillance seems to arouse more concern than the data-gathering done by companies. This concern is well-founded, given well-documented abuses of surveillance powers by the government.

I'm of the view that that may be the case, but I'm also of the view that the private sector is more powerful (in the de facto sense) than is the public sector. I view business surveillance and government surveillance with equal amounts of fear and loathing.

As is pointed out, spying back has already begun:

While questions about these policies are debated by the Congress and considered by the courts, we citizens are left with a world where pervasive surveillance is the norm and it looks like it will stay that way. Companies and the government spy on us, and expect us to tolerate it. What can we do about it? One option: spy back. This sounds silly until you consider that the process has already begun. Another option: demand reciprocal transparency, not only from the companies we do business with, but from our representatives in government.

The most publicized of these efforts has been something called sousveillance. So far this seems to consist mostly of video sousveillance, which is well and good, but I'd like to see some sousveillance in the form of data mining, which looks to me to be the spookiest of the information technologies.

Yet since 9/11, we have been asked to give up even more privacy: the Bush Administration has pioneered novel spying tactics ("warrantless wiretapping"), justifying them with novel legal theories. Additionally, and disturbingly, the government has issued subpoenas to companies to compel them to share proprietary company data (such as search engine data), ostensibly for counterterrorism purposes.

I suggest that the best way to deal with the sceptre of the government "compelling" the search engines to "share" "proprietary" data for "counterterrorism" purposes, is to build a nonproprietary search engine. (Yes, they are intended as scare quotes) I would submit that privacy (what's left of it, anyway) applies to individuals, not institutions. Privacy is to individuals as secrecy is to institutions. The generic term which includes both privacy and secrecy is "confidentiality." Saying the government is receiving confidential data has an entirely different tone from saying the government is receiving proprietary data.

It is not my intent here to contrast Wilt's apparently libertarian take on the issue with my anti-authoritarian one. I am in enthusiastic agreement that "[w]hat is needed is for parties other than ordinary citizens to lose more of their privacy," and I am interested in participating in any way I can in helping to engineer such a detournement.

Now, consider Symmetrical and Asymmetrical Technologies at Kevin Kelly's Technion:

Very large computers that can mine trivial everyday data for patterns is one example. Here the inherent imbalance between the level of knowledge available creates uncertainty, fear, and resentment. If asymmetrical technologies advance and spread, those less in-the-know will rebel, avoid it, sabotage, or subvert them. But symmetry can be restored with better technologies that embrace reciprocal information. We can watch the watchers and as we watch, others watch us.

To put it personally, I am comfortable with having my movements tracked, my habits databased in aggregate, and my tastes networked IF -- BIG IF:

1) I know what information is being collected, where and why, and by whom
2) I assent to it either implicitly or explicitly, and I am aware of it
3) I have access to correct it, and can use the data myself
4) I get some benefit for doing so (recommendations, collaborative filtering, or economic payment)

Right now, I go along with a technology if I can get 3 out of 4 of these demands. If these four conditions are met I am happy to have my everything monitored. Throw in some payments, or freebies and you can watch my boring life all you want. But remove those conditions and I am outraged. I find governmental surveillance particularly wicked because it meets none of those conditions.

Do to the boilerplate nature of B2C (business-to-consumer) relationships, I go along with technologies pretty much without question, but begrudgingly. As Wilt says:

Consider for a moment that whenever we buy gas, enter a bank, gamble at a casino, withdraw money from an ATM, or go shopping, we are subjected to surveillance by the business we are buying from. For the most part, a consensus has developed that this surveillance is benign. Legitimate customers recognize that businesses use surveillance to frustrate activities that they do not wish to subsidize (drive-aways, bank theft, cheating at gambling, larceny), so they are willing to tolerate surveillance by the business. Furthermore, if there were a market opportunity for businesses that did not employ surveillance in this way - the "gas station that doesn't spy on its customers" or "Wal-Mart with no surveillance" - some business would have exploited it by now. That hasn't happened.

I'm not convinced that the reason non-surveillance isn't touted as a selling point is because of a perception that surveillance is benign, and there is definitely not a consensus to that effect. The real reason appears to be that the opportunities to profit from data mining outweigh the opportunities to profit from offering informational privacy (or symmetry) as a "value added" (or should I say "value not subtracted"?) proposition. After all the Kroger supermarket chain offers you the opportunity to buy merchandise without the behavior-tracking "Plus Card," with the only catch being that you pay the "regular" price, which is consistently above the going rate.

To go along with a technology without reservations, I would make only one demand: That I am allowed to make queries against the data. Ideally this means all the data. The obvious implication of this, of course, is that nobody has any privacy whatsoever, a situation I fear far less than database asymmetry. Minimally, I feel entitled to undiluted query and bulk-download access to all data points generated by me. The greatest informational insult, as I see it, is a GPS receiver, debit card, set-top box (e.g. from the kable kompany), website account or other "personal" technological product that transmits a conveniently machine-readable stream of raw data to which I am not privy. The defining feature, as I see it of a "better technology that embraces reciprocal information" is simply a serial port.

Returning to the Kroger Plus Card: It is clearly a powerful tool in identifying statistical clusters within the shopping public. The public relations spin on customer loyalty cards is that they enhance customer service by anticipating customer needs. There is obviously some truth to this, but is a store that knows instinctively what you're looking for really the best store for you? Consider your experience (my typical experience, anyway) as a job applicant. Does the company really want the applicant pool to have a detailed knowledge of what exactly it is they're looking for? Sure, if there's a public posting of the opening, it details what's required, what's a "plus," and paints a picture of the ideal candidate. But listen to the candidates speculate among themselves in the waiting room, and it becomes clear that much information is a mystery. How heavily will various factors be weighted? What is the applicant-to-opening ratio? It's no mystery that the company wants the particulars to be a mystery to the applicants. After all, an applicant who knows the employer's selection criteria in explicit detail will game the system, right? Likewise, if it seems a retail establishment knows me intimately, has me "figured out," so to speak, I feel disempowered. I feel more "competed over" if it appears I'm "keeping them guessing" as to how best to make the sale.

When applying for jobs, I'm often asked to waive away all sorts of personal privacy rights concerning everything from consumer credit history to bodily fluids. The stock libertarian response to the individual as job applicant or as grocery shopper is the same old trope: "Nobody's holding a gun to your head." The common thread as I see it is that both situations arise out of relationships between institutions (in these examples, businesses) and individuals. My own experiences with (actually existing) "capitalism" have been mostly disempowering in one way or another, and my ideological preference is to draw the battle lines between individuals and institutions, not between the private sector and the public sector. That being said, I think much can be accomplished with ad hoc alliances between libertarians and anti-authoritarians of a more or less anticapitalist tendency, at least when it comes to wresting symmetry from the technion (if I may call it that).

Wresting anything, when one is the low element in any kind of power matrix, is akin to "belling the cat." I am very skeptical of the proposition that symmetry can be accomplished by requesting or demanding policy changes from institutions, or adoption of open source technologies by the same. The real issue here is open content, not open source, although I would certainly agree that transparency and symmetry require both. Symmetry, like freedom, is taken, not given.

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