Robert Sawyer's Alibis

Back in 2002, science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer wrote an essay about the trade-off between privacy and security, and came out in favor of less privacy. I disagree with most of what he said, and have written pretty much the opposite essay -- and others on the value of privacy and the future of privacy -- several times since then.

The point of this blog entry isn't really to debate the topic, though. It's to reprint the opening paragraph of Sawyer's essay, which I've never forgotten:

Whenever I visit a tourist attraction that has a guest register, I always sign it. After all, you never know when you'll need an alibi.

Since I read that, whenever I see a tourist attraction with a guest register, I do the same thing. I sign "Robert J. Sawyer, Toronto, ON" -- because you never know when he'll need an alibi.

EDITED TO ADD (9/15): Sawyer's essay now has a preface, which states that he wrote it to promote a book of his:

The following was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel Hominids, and does not necessarily reflect the author's personal views.

In the comments below, though, Sawyer says that the essay does not reflect his personal views. So I'm not sure about the waffling on the essay page.

I am completely surprised that Sawyer's essay was fictional. For years I thought that he meant what he wrote, that it was a non-fiction essay written for a non-fiction publication. He has other essays on his website; I have no idea if any of those reflect his personal views. The whole thing makes absolutely no sense to me.

Posted on September 14, 2009 at 7:24 AM • 125 Comments

Comments

David BrantSeptember 14, 2009 7:00 AM

I liked this one from Sawyer's article:

"With proper safeguards, there's no reason why any honest person should fear a little benign oversight. "

haha that has got to be a joke, right?

Thanks for the timely reminder, Bruce. It's easy to forget that there are people who have that point of view.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 7:02 AM

@ neill,

"your cell phone company knows where you were anyways ... and your credit card company ... and your GPS in your car ... etc etc etc"

Err no.

Your phone company knows where a phone you supposadly use is.

The GPS in your car knows where th car is but not who drove it there.

In London youngsters have moile phones and travel cards by which they set alibs for their "friends"...

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 7:15 AM

One problem with alibis like your signiture are they are a double edged sword.

Sometimes you "don't" want to have been somewhere.

This is why I like shopping receipts and bus tickets on cash purchases. They are effectivly one way, if you have one you can "chose" to use it to show where you where, however if you don't show or make available the ticket or recipt then it does not work the other way.

Importantly with buying food in tins or jars etc you can put them in the cupboard, they have batch codes that are tracebale, and again tend to work "one way".

If someone chalenges the recipt you show as an alibi and you produce a couple of "store cupboard" items that are traced back to the shop you bought them then few people will question the alibi...

VincentSeptember 14, 2009 7:19 AM

I've been shopping as Bill Clinton on my grocery club card since the '90s. You never know when he'll need the coupons for gas.

I'm really not trying to pick a Bruce vs. Robert fight here, but there's a hell of a lot of "we're living in an enlightened age and don't need to worry" talk there. I don't want to say the sky is falling, but you would have to be fairly wealthy, fairly white, not travel very much, and live in Canada, to be so sure we're living in an enlightened age.

B. RealSeptember 14, 2009 7:20 AM

All this discussion on the time clock of blog postings. Looking for the alibi "I was posting to Bruce's blog"?

I remember some years ago when a local man's alibi for some dastardly deed was that he was 35 miles away at a bank on that Wednesday - although the bank said he was there on Thursday instead. It took a reasonably intelligent Public Defender who believed in his client to ask the right question and find out that the bank rolled the date at 2:00pm on their machines, and the guy really WAS at the bank on Wednesday - even though the paperwork was date-stamped Thursday. And when the bank officers were talking to the police this didn't cross their mind about their own system?

bethanSeptember 14, 2009 7:26 AM

i don't think i could disagree with sawyer more than i do. supporting legislated privacy loss for public security? that's crazy. ::CRAZY::

i don't even try to read his articles any more. anyone who will say that stuff is not essential reading.

neill September 14, 2009 7:35 AM

your cell phone company knows where you were anyways ... and your credit card company ... and your GPS in your car ... etc etc etc

caseySeptember 14, 2009 7:39 AM

I am not sure what Sawyer means by privacy. He says he does not need it, then describes a system by which everything you do is recorded, but only you can access it(or your familiy or govt). If we don't need privacy, then why lock access it at all? Even in his screed against privacy, he illustrates its value--

"No one but you, or, if you disappeared, your family or the police, could access the contents of your black box"

If this is an example of his thoughts, I won't be reading any of his novels.

Ike AhnoklastSeptember 14, 2009 7:41 AM

This reminds me of the joke where the guy tries to prevent pilferage of his donuts from the break-room fridge by attaching a note to the bag that says, "Don't touch these - I've spit on them!" and somebody else writes on it, "So did I..."

dot tilde dotSeptember 14, 2009 7:45 AM

these are the comments i am seeing at 3:44pm gmt+1:

dot tilde dot at September 14, 2009 7:41 AM
Chuck at September 14, 2009 7:48 AM
David Brant at September 14, 2009 8:04 AM
David Brant at September 14, 2009 8:06 AM

and this is a few minutes after writing at 7:41am.

funny.

.~.

RoboticusSeptember 14, 2009 7:48 AM

I became physically ill trying to read his essay. "Who would assault, murder, or rape, if they knew that the victim would have a complete off-site record of the event made by their own implant?"
I know of at least two assaults made infront of dozens of witnesses and countless assaults where the perpetrator knew they were being recorded on video. Also "Again, it was privacy that made Hitler's Final Solution come within a hair's breadth of succeeding"? WTF? It was privacy that made the resistance in Italy and France so successful. I'm more scared of people like this than I am of any terrorist. A terrorist can destroy a building and kill people. People like this can destroy the country I love. America without freedom and privacy is not America.

neillSeptember 14, 2009 7:58 AM

@clive

you're right about the phones - who carries it is not known

i guess from the car blackbox you could get data about acceleration/brake/shift patterns etc that are very unique to every driver ('user') - like keystrokes - i remember there was a french company that developed a user recognition system depending on the keystrokes

kangarooSeptember 14, 2009 8:01 AM

Well, Sawyer has the honor of being one of the only authors I've ever returned to the bookstore for sheer crappiness of writing -- years ago, without any special foreknowledge of his politics.

There are exceptions to the rule that simple-minded analysis comes from poor writers -- but in general, if you can't tell me a story that keeps me interested for half an hour, I really don't want to hear your politics, and if your politics are at the level of a 16-year old who's just discovered Marx or Rand, I doubt you have any entertaining stories to tell.

David BrantSeptember 14, 2009 8:04 AM

I see your system time, wherever your blog is located on the 'net, is set to Mountain Time .. aren't you here in Minneapolis?

The more of Sawyer's article I read, I am more convinced that it's satire. At least, I'm laughing.

David BrantSeptember 14, 2009 8:06 AM

OK my comment on the time was based on the fact that I posted my first comment at 8.00, not 7.00. There must have been a timewarp or something.

sooth sayerSeptember 14, 2009 8:08 AM

I agree with Mr. Sawyer.

99.99999999999% of the people really can't be effective protecting their privacy.

There are just too many loose ends from which they can be "discovered" so the added cost + complexity makes the whole thing just a psychological exercise of feeling secure but doesn't accomplish much and costs a lot of effort.

I don't protect my wifi router at home -- I do use passwords but don't let the sites remember them.
Of course I don't use my real name on this blog -- I do need some anonymity - but I am 100% sure that Bruce can find who I am with about 10 minutes of effort!

Dimitris AndrakakisSeptember 14, 2009 8:23 AM

This guy can't be serious ! Here's my favourite part :

--------------
[...] If the universe should be teeming with life, asked Fermi, then where are all the aliens? [...] Perhaps countless alien civilizations have already been wiped out by single terrorists who'd been left alone to work unmonitored in their private laboratories. [...] For, as the silence from the stars attests, not only is an unexamined life not worth living, it may be that unexamined lives are too dangerous for us to allow them to be lived.
--------------

So, SETI guys, look no more : the aliens have been by alien terrorists in an alien equivalent of 9/11 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

vwmSeptember 14, 2009 8:26 AM

I like the part where Sawyer argues, SETI might not have found anything because all the Aliens blew themselves up because of to much privacy.

Makes totally sense, doesen't it? Then again, maybe we have not found them, because of their privacy protection measures.

AndySeptember 14, 2009 8:37 AM

" If the Japanese had been privy to the July 16, 1945, A-bomb test explosion in Alamogordo, New Mexico, I doubt they would have needed to be surprised by bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki before surrendering. "

Perhaps they would have changed their target instead. Is this guy for real? And claiming that maybe the reason we don't see aliens is quite possibly because privacy destroyed their civilizations? WTF?

SteveSeptember 14, 2009 8:41 AM

If an individual or a small group created a self-improving AI that was *almost* friendly, it could be an extinction-level event. So could a lab creating von neumann nano-probes with insufficient safety measures, or a virally administered genetic enhancement that took a bad mutation. But what kind of surveillance could possibly separate these from their slightly different, massively beneficial counterparts?

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 9:04 AM

@ Dimitris Andrakakis,

"So, SETI guys, look no more"

When it comes to "little green men" the lack of simple logic applied on the reasoning just leaves me astounded...

For instance we have only been looking for less than 50 years and life on our earth is what 4 Billion years old.

Importantly we are looking for little green men so amazingly afluent they can send out multi gigawatt signals continuously.

In the last 100 years what have we been sending out that has even got a chance of leaving our solar system above the noise floor?

The answer is "mains hum" and are we looking for VLF signals from space?

No apparently we would have to use antennas on the edge of our solar system to do that due to "problems".

The simple answer to "little green men" is they are like us sitting at home waiting for somebody else to make a call as like us they cannot aford to just keep calling around hoping they get a valid number.

LazloSeptember 14, 2009 9:22 AM

Wow. Here's a good one:

"But I can't see the downside of an RCMP or CSIS computer noting that my neighbour has bought all the materials to make a pipe bomb and has booked a one-way flight to Tahiti."

I wonder if he'd be able to see the downside while spending what would have been his vacation in Tahiti explaining to the police why he decided to fertilize his lawn and fix some rusty pipes he was afraid might give out while he was gone before he left for the trip?

He does sort of touch on a good point - the only advantage I see might come from the proliferation of surveillance is that it could be used to exonerate the innocent. Blackstone's formulation says that it's better that 10 guilty men go free than a single innocent suffer. One interpretation would be that 10 million innocent citizens are suffering a loss of privacy in order that a few thousand guilty not be let free, however another would be that the guilty who are convicted are an immaterial side effect of the most important purpose, that of protecting the innocent from wrongful accusation. That's an argument that I could at least understand and appreciate, but hardly anyone is making that argument. I see plenty of statistics for additional arrests and such due to surveillance, but none for acquittals based on it. I'm really curious why?

Perhaps there's a bias in reporting. Maybe it's harder to quantify because it happens earlier in the process (If the police ask you where you were when a crime was committed, and you say you were at the bank, and they check the ATM footage and find you there, that may only become a footnote in the investigation. If, however, they have footage of you committing a crime, that's bound to be noted in the actual court case.) Or maybe it's not reported on because it just doesn't happen.

But really, if the proponents of surveillance really wanted to sway my opinion, they would find the exonerated innocents and shout their story from the rooftops.

just testingSeptember 14, 2009 9:31 AM

Bruce, when I read the quotation you made, "Whenever I visit a tourist attraction that has a guest register, I always sign it", as "... I always spin it". I was thinking of the rotating registers hotel used to have ... and a few still do!.

Anyway, I always do have a little look see. What's funny is how many friends and family become upset with me for snooping on others be it a muesum, cathedral or whatever guestbook. Of course anyone else could look at the book and not just the book's owner.

This just illustrates the misunderstanding most folks have with surveillance technology. It just keeps honest people honest and does nothing about the dishonest. I don't include myself as a dishonest, instead I am am "illustrator" or a "tester-of-systems" :)

Robert J. SawyerSeptember 14, 2009 9:49 AM

Bruce, since we see each other socially at science-fiction events, and so you should know this, you really should have acknowledged that the piece you're linking to of mine was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel HOMINIDS, which, along with its sequels, explores the pluses and, at great length, the minuses of a society that uses the alibi-archive technology as outlined in the article. (Since you didn't set the stage, I'll update the page you're linking to.)

HOMINIDS went on to win the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year, and has two sequels (the Hugo nominated HUMANS, and HYBRIDS); all deal with the privacy issue.

(Oh, and David Brant, in what way is linking to a seven-year-old essay a "timely reminder" on Bruce's part? Don't worry, though, Bruce is usually much better at responding to things than this, even if he himself couldn't find the essay -- the very first Google hit on "Sawyer privacy" without the quotes -- without writing to me for my help in the search.) ;)

Rob

JasonSeptember 14, 2009 9:50 AM

Since it specifically mentions Big Brother (in a positive light), Hitler and calls alien genocide a "likely possibility", is there any other evidence that the entire Sawyer essay is a parody à la "A Modest Proposal"?

I mean the final paragraph,
"Whether we want American-style life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or Canadian peace, order, and good government, clinging to privacy at all costs is the worst thing we can do. For, as the silence from the stars attests, not only is an unexamined life not worth living, it may be that unexamined lives are too dangerous for us to allow them to be lived. The very future of humanity may depend on giving up the outmoded notion of privacy, rather than fighting to retain it."

Come on, really?

"as the silence from the stars attests"?

"The very future of humanity may depend"?

Hello, melodrama. This can't really be for real. It reeks of hyperbole and satire.

John CampbellSeptember 14, 2009 9:51 AM

I recall from Heinlein's "Moon is a Harsh Mistress" that people who want to enact laws want them to apply to everyone else. (Zoning laws, for instance, exist to restrict one's neighbors...)

Legislating a lack of privacy is only for OTHER people "who deserve oversight", but, then, how many people forget that the shoe can go on the other foot?

"What goes around comes around" is just a secular version of "Do unto others as you'd have done to you". In other words, if you do not defend your neighbor's privacy don't expect them to protect YOURS.

The real problem is that each of us have our own definition for privacy... and one key reason for it...

"Respectability is inversely proportional to sexuality."

And people wonder why privacy can be such an important commodity, it protects what we view as our reputations.

JasonSeptember 14, 2009 9:54 AM

or, as Sawyer himself adds, ideas related to the plot of a book he was writing.

Ergo, not reality, a piece of fiction designed to be hyperbole and "what if" from the onset.

D0RSeptember 14, 2009 9:59 AM

If you think you might need an alibi, then you feel like you have something to hide.
In a modern, civilized world it's not supposed to work this way, though. It's up to the law the burden to find a proof against you -- not you to prove your innocence.
I understand now why Robert J. Sawyer is of this opinion.

D0RSeptember 14, 2009 10:08 AM

"The following was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel Hominids, which, along with its sequels, explores the pluses and, at great length, the minuses of a society that uses the alibi-archive technology as outlined in the article."

So the essay does not really show your beliefs? That's very confusing. You should have attributed the essay to a fictional character in the book.

Robert J. SawyerSeptember 14, 2009 10:09 AM

I guess we have Bruce's own little version of misunderstanding Orson Welles' WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast, too, now, although in that case, the panic came the next day, not seven years later. :) Ah, the breakneck speed of the interwebs! :D

Oh, and in case anyone is now panicking over the promos for my current project, the TV series FLASHFORWARD, based on my novel of the same name, which debuts on ABC next week, rest assured that 45 million people AREN'T really going to die on September 24, 2009. I promise. :)

Neil in ChicagoSeptember 14, 2009 10:10 AM

I guess there's no point in signing Wilson "Bob" Tucker any more . . .
As for store cards, just swap cards with random strangers occasionally.

SpeedbirdSeptember 14, 2009 10:18 AM

LOL

Perhaps we can set up a web site where we can sell "alibis". People in need of an alibi provide time, date and location and criminal mischief committed. Others travelling in the area can sign guestbooks etc. for a fee (based on the crime committed).

RHSeptember 14, 2009 10:28 AM

@D0R. You have one thing right, it is the law's job to determine guilt or innocence. Sadly humanity hasn't figured out a perfect way to do that yet.

(Of course, the other side of the coin is how much of the law's effort do you wish to expend for them to track you down when a simple alibi took far less effort on your part? My personal views are that, even though you are not part of the law, you do have some responsibility as part of humanity to help the process along - alibi's are quick and easy to check compared to other evidence... or at least they were until the internet let us manufacture them so well ;- )

VincentSeptember 14, 2009 10:37 AM

Anyway, some of us are already so well accounted by virtue of profession, we don't ever, ever need alibis.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddySeptember 14, 2009 10:41 AM

Sawyer's proposal (and he isn't the first to have thought of it) is to trade an idea of ad hoc, but potentially absolute privacy for a situation where everything is "seen" , but access is strictly controlled. That is privacy becomes conditional, but the conditions are known from the outset, and offer a high degree of functional privacy.

I can see how a person might be willing to make that trade: there are are real potential benefits in terms of criminal justice, and protecting one's self from unjust accusations of all kinds (social, tort, criminal...).

Only, to make it work, you have to posit a perfect information control technology and a perfect bureaucracy to administer it.

How well do you think that will work out in the actual world that we actually live in?

Come on, Bob. Surely you can see that there will be those with he skills and tools to subvert the technology. That there will be those whose power and prestige allows them to skirt the access rules.

We have small, high density batteries, minimum encumbrance personal power generators, nearly ubiquitous medium to high bandwidth wireless communication networks, and tiny, cheep audio and video senors, even today. You can reap many of the proposed benefits by deploying a personal lifelogger even now. Let us know how it works for you.

Ward S. DenkerSeptember 14, 2009 10:42 AM

What a funny way to make your point.

It's a pretty sad commentary on society that the fellow feels he must leave evidence of his passing everywhere he goes to avoid the machinery of law. I think his behavior is very much a reaction to the lack of privacy our society now has.

Mr. FloydSeptember 14, 2009 10:53 AM

> The simple answer to "little green men"
> is they are like us sitting at home waiting
> for somebody else to make a call as like us
> they cannot aford to just keep calling around
> hoping they get a valid number.

What happens if they call collect?

GeorgeSeptember 14, 2009 10:56 AM

Mr Sawyer beat me to this, but his article is specifically about the personal data recorders and "alibi archive" in his trilogy of a parallel universe in which the Neanderthals achieved sentience rather than our species. (It's worth reading, by the way, for its thought-provoking Canadian perspective.)

The scheme in his novels indeed has elaborate safeguards that protect the data archive of every incident in every citizen's life. The trust in those safeguards is an important aspect of the scheme's effectiveness. Mr Sawyer didn't actually write about the abuse of the archive, but in reading the novels I continually imagined the possibility of a Neanderthal version of Dick Cheney who, in reaction to a terrorist threat, grants himself the unlimited authority to circumvent the safeguards and mine the "alibi archives" whenever and for whatever purpose he wants. The mining would be, of course, in complete secrecy for "national security reasons," justified by classified memoranda from attorneys whose loyalty is to the administration.

The point is that we always need to be wary of any proposals for wholesale data mining, even if it's for an ostensibly noble "national security" purpose. No matter what safeguards are in place, there will always be the potential for abuse, motivated by profit, ideology, or "just because we can."

Bruce SchneierSeptember 14, 2009 11:02 AM

"Bruce, since we see each other socially at science-fiction events, and so you should know this, you really should have acknowledged that the piece you're linking to of mine was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel HOMINIDS, which, along with its sequels, explores the pluses and, at great length, the minuses of a society that uses the alibi-archive technology as outlined in the article."

I didn't realize it was a promotion. I thought it was a non-fiction essay on a topic that interested me -- and I took it at face value. I knew the book connection, although I haven't read the books.

Are you saying that you don't agree with what you wrote?

Robert J. SawyerSeptember 14, 2009 11:05 AM

Of course I'm saying that, Bruce. Sheesh. I spent 300,000 words exploring all the ins and outs of these ideas in a trilogy; the plot of HOMINIDS is driven by a failure of the alibi archive technology to exonerate the main character.

Robert J. SawyerSeptember 14, 2009 11:10 AM

As you would have known if you'd attended the panel I moderated on "Information Security and the Science Fiction Future" at the Gartner Information Security Summit at the Gaylord National near Washington in June 2008. You were in the building -- see what you get for blowing off my session? ;)

JasonSeptember 14, 2009 11:29 AM

So for all of the red flags in the essay (especially the 'Big Brother makes me feel warm and fuzzy' and the Hitler references) most everyone here took it at face value and jumped on a particular band wagon.

I'm not sure what to make of that.

Back to the point, a true surveillance society requires people to be honest and that safe guards to data access be unbreachable. It also requires that the surveillance be truly universal.

See Æon Flux episode "Utopia or Deuteranopia?" for an example.

For another interesting take on how Neanderthals might behave in a modern setting, see the Thursday Next series of novels. Though in that case it is cloning that brings them back (along with mammoths and dodos).

savanikSeptember 14, 2009 11:43 AM

@Robert:

Wait, so you're saying that Bruce was in the building but you never saw him at the session?

Are you sure someone else didn't just sign the guest register with his name?

Bruce SchneierSeptember 14, 2009 12:26 PM

@ Robert Sawyer

I had no idea that you didn't agree with what you wrote. I'm sorry, but I just don't have experience with people writing essays about public policy that are fictional. (Well, I certainly have experience with essays that are not true, but I always assume that the writer believes what he says.)

You and I shared a panel at a science fiction convention back then, perhaps Confusion in Detroit, where you said that same things on stage that you said in the essay -- again, I had no idea you were holding a fictional position.

Perhaps you should put a disclaimer on the page, saying that you wrote the essay to publicize your book but don't (no longer? never did?) agree with the statements in the essay. I'm sure I'm not the only one who read the essay and took it at face value.

WoftamSeptember 14, 2009 12:37 PM

I always sign as Alan Citrus, Peel Street, Orange !! There is actually this address in Australia.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 12:39 PM

@ Mr. Floyd,

"What happens if they call collect?"

In that case they have built an "inverse energy convayor"

And that would be truely scarey because they would suck us dry...

David BrantSeptember 14, 2009 12:41 PM

Holy cats! The world ends on my birthday? Not cool.

Actually Robert, I simply meant it was a timely reminder for me. I did notice it was dated 2002.

I did take the essay at face value, sorry to say. I don't usually comment on things in any blog, but I did think it was naive, although written seven years ago.

I wasn't trying to cause any aggravation on anyone's part, I apologize if my tone conveyed that.

RHSeptember 14, 2009 12:53 PM

Clearly this needs to be settled the old fashioned way! Schneier vs, Sawyer... arm wrestling, best of 7. Winner takes all. Anyone know a bookie to take bets? ;- )

Clearly God will have been on the side of the victor.

askme233September 14, 2009 1:02 PM

Talking to a friend today (who will remain nameless) who works for one of the top global Mobile phone companies (which will remain nameless) and he was telling me about this cool new software into which they are dumping all (as in all) of the cell tower connect data showing every time your phone moved from tower to tower whether or not it was on.

They are combining this data with credit card transaction data to identify the route taken by each person through their day. The ostensible reason is to sell to stores details on the physical shopping habits of each of their customers (e.g. where they live, how they came into town, what others stores they visited first/next, etc.)

This wasn't pie in the sky stuff. He was telling me exactly what software they are using, etc. and how they have to tweak it to handle the huge data volumes.

Talk about your alibi/loss of privacy!

HJohnSeptember 14, 2009 2:23 PM

I guess there is a point on both sides of the alibi and privacy paradigm. On one hand, I really don't want anyone to see where I was at any given time. On the other hand, if ever falsely accused of something, some backup to what you say you were doing isn't a bad thing.

Perhaps use a fake name that no one would associate with you, but you will remember if you need to point to it.

Detective: Where were you last night?
Me: NOYB National Park.
Detective: There was no HJohn Smith from Detoit on their guest register.
Me: I signed in as "I.P. Daily, from Yellow River, Wyoming."

I see a difference between anonymity and privacy. Anonymity means no one knows who you are. Privacy means only those who have a reason to know, know.

I also think of anonymity/privacy when deciding whether to pay by cash or charge.

OceanSeptember 14, 2009 2:51 PM

I believe that being put into a position to have to produce or reveal a alibi is a invasion of my privacy. If I am accused of anything I take for granted that the burdon of proof is rested upon the shoulders of my accuser. This is guaranteed to me by the Constitution of The United States of America.

NeighborcatSeptember 14, 2009 2:55 PM

What?! The essay is a promo piece? No fair!

Can we go back to the part of the thread where we all thought Mr. Sawyer is a naive hack? I was so looking forward to a good piling on... especially a Canadian!

The "alien terrorists" bit is pretty good though...


NC

ShaneSeptember 14, 2009 3:33 PM

@Robert J. Sawyer

The only thing that makes me more sick than any one sentence in your entire essay is the fact that the viewpoints therein (which are written in the first person I might add), according to you, are done strictly in promotion for your products.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 5:49 PM

@ Hjohn,

"Detective: There was no HJohn Smith from Detoit on their guest register.
Me: I signed in as I.P. Daily, from Yellow River, Wyoming."

In the UK you would just have convicted yourself under the "Official Secrets Act" and worse in some other states.

And in the UK that means potentialy a secret court session and a sentance you don't want to think about... The offense of supplying false detail in a guest register (which I don't think has been repealed) was brought in during the war to deal with spies etc.

And we all know what happens to unlucky spies, and due to other more recent legislation you don't even get "a last smoke" any more as it's the executioners "place of work" and is not excempt from "anti-smoking legislation" 8(

ModeratorSeptember 14, 2009 6:01 PM

The blog's problem with Daylight Savings Time should be fixed tomorrow morning. (Those of you needing to establish alibis for one hour in the past, take note.)

B-ConSeptember 14, 2009 6:07 PM

@Robert J. Sawyer,

The website is personally administered by you and the essay contains no disclaimer. No matter where you go, that constitutes grounds for reading the essay literally.

If you explored the subject more and argued it from both sides you could claim the essay was "obviously" intended to be purely thought-provoking -- after all, there is always provision for arguing points of view that are not your own. But the essay was completely one-sided and you gave no counter arguments. There was nothing to indicate that what you wrote wasn't what you believed.

You wrote it and you posted it. You have to assume people will read it literally.

B-ConSeptember 14, 2009 6:11 PM

Moderator:
> (Those of you needing to establish alibis for one hour in the past, take note.)

Had I posted 30 minutes ago, the reported time of my post would have been while I was supposed to be at work. So in my case that would be an anti-alibi, also known as incriminating evidence. :-P

Clive RobinsonSeptember 14, 2009 6:19 PM

@ HJohn,

"I also think of anonymity/privacy when deciding whether to pay by cash or charge."

This is the point I made earlier about sales recipts and bus tickets, they are inherantly one way on a cash payment.

They have the time date, place, and item purchased on them etc, but importantly not your name etc so are an anonymous poof of transaction at a time and place.

And unlike false names in guest registers don't have an "acting hinky" asspect to them, that would raise suspicion in the minds of a jury.

As I also noted it's upto you to reveal or not reveal it's existance and when thus covering both your anonymity and privacy defs,

"Anonymity means no one knows who you are. Privacy means only those who have a reason to know, know."

And also if challenged by a prosecutor etc produce one or more of the "goods" on the list that have "batch codes" that can be traced to that particular store.

Thus the "cash sales recipt" has the property of being a "one way" token of a transaction at a time and place in everyday use that also may have a (possibly week) reverse proof of being the person carrying out the transaction either via "producing the goods" or by associated CCTV footage from the event.

400guySeptember 14, 2009 6:40 PM

Let me start by admitting that I have very much enjoyed all three of the novels in the series.

Remember that Sawyer's fictional Neanderthal society was developed by a different species with different motivations and values. If that society has enough parallels with our own to provoke comparisons, and if our society does not always come off well in the comparison, well, that just adds to the interest of a cracking good story. Sorry, kangaroo, just different tastes, I guess.

To get a taste of the story, you can read the first chapter at http://sfwriter.com/scho.htm. While I am plugging Sawyer's work, I also commend to you the first chapter of "Calculating God", on the web at http://sfwriter.com/sccg.htm.

Doug CoulterSeptember 14, 2009 8:52 PM

@Bruce,
Whatever else, the initial comment(s) made me laugh so hard I almost snorted my beer into the keyboard (moved it off my lap quick enough), and my wife thought I was having a problem. Perhaps you need to issue a "danger to keyboard" alert like some other good blogs do (Groklaw for example) that don't normally specialize in humor?

Good one!

Such a homebody I'll never have a good alibi, but also pretty unlikely to ever need one.

The MisanthropeSeptember 15, 2009 12:26 AM

I came here for a discussion of opposing views on privacy. Instead it seems to be a "kick the crap out of Robert J. Sawyer" mutual masturbation ring.

When does the real debate start?

hwKeitelSeptember 15, 2009 1:04 AM

@casey and @Robert J. Sawyer: RJS is not interested in privacy, he is talking about alibi. he knows that he will need one;) this mix-up (alibi privacy) is his mistake.

MishkaSeptember 15, 2009 1:59 AM

"...the trade-off between privacy and security..."

The Sawyer paper is scary, but this debate is meaningless because it is based upon the false assumption that privacy and security are mutually exclusive. To my mind the simple counter-argument to what he is proposing is: a complete invasion of my privacy by a "benign overseer" is no guarantee of security, and complete privacy does not lead to a total lack of security.

Sawyer states "...if you did disappear ... you could be quickly found." Hey, maybe it's just me, but I don't want to disappear in the first place! Don't try to find a better way to locate my body in the rubble of a building bombed by terrorists. Find a way to prevent them being terrorists in the first place! A good place to start might be to stop killing their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers...

I don't know about you, but I want privacy *and* security and - call me an idealist! - I don't see any reason why I should have to settle for anything less!

The MisanthropeSeptember 15, 2009 2:14 AM

I think the reason behind our mutual desire for privacy is that we are ruled by governments and oppressive social structures that crush people based on what goes on in their bedrooms or in their coffee-table discussion groups.

The 21st Century aspect of this is how electronic surveillance and new "security measures," aside from being uncomfortable, can uncover things that should not matter, but that can keep you from getting a job or from successfully running for office or whatnot.

The Stone Age aspect of this is how tribes of angry cavemen will find something out about someone and use that tidbit as a way of choosing which tribe member to beat on out of boredom or frustration or whatever. That's why The Scarlet Letter was such a powerful piece of literature. It may be set in the past, but nothing has changed in human tribal groups.

So why do we want privacy? To survive. To succeed. So the other cave men don't beat on us for fun.

The MisanthropeSeptember 15, 2009 2:21 AM

And to add to my above comment, if human nature was that we didn't care what went on in each other's bedrooms or minds, and if we weren't stuck in this genetically hard-coded compete-or-die mindset, would we have the same desire for privacy? I don't think so.

If we lived in a world in which people weren't beaten to death for being gay, and in which most of the governments of the world didn't legislate that certain sexual acts between adults are illegal, and in which the equivalent of the village elders didn't ostracize people for what they do and whom they do, I don't think we'd feel the same need for privacy in that regard.

I think, in this debate, too few of you are going into the "whys" of privacy. You take it as a given. That's why so many of you got as nasty as a 15-year-old junior high prom queen with a broken plastic tiara when someone questioned it. Well, question it. Your argument will be stronger for it.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 15, 2009 2:33 AM

@ Doug Coulter,

"Such a homebody I'll never have a good alibi, but also pretty unlikely to ever need one."

Like accidents more crime "happens in the home" than ever get's reported.

Therefore home is a dangerous place and people who frequent dangerous places must be dangerous people or vicarious thrill seekers.

Which are you?

I think we should be told!

Seriously though I hope the liquid you are currently embibing has gone down the right passage and not back the way from whence it came 8)

A Nonny BunnySeptember 15, 2009 4:19 AM

It seems the article now has a disclaimer at the top. Who ever said you couldn't effect change in the world by talking on the internet ;)


@ "With proper safeguards, there's no reason why any honest person should fear a little benign oversight."

One problem with that is that you may not be able to distinguish benign from malevolent oversight until it turns ugly.

A Nonny BunnySeptember 15, 2009 4:52 AM

@"SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence with radio telescopes, has utterly failed to turn up any sign of alien life forms. Why?"

Because sufficiently advanced communication is indistinguishable from noise.

KaySeptember 15, 2009 5:49 AM

I'm not totally into the details of Bruce and Robert, but what I noticed is the following sentence in the introduction to the essay:

"The following was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel Hominids, and does not necessarily reflect the author's personal views. Hominids, along with its two sequels, explores the pluses and, at great length, the minuses of a society that uses the alibi-archive technology as outlined below. "

Couldn't it be he set that up on purpose? Just to gut you/us rattling around this topic?

hwKeitelSeptember 15, 2009 7:19 AM

Is this a great promotion from the marketing experts Schneier and Sawyer?
Both met at the "Gartner Information Security Summit" and invented this great "battle"-idea.
We should check the guest register. If there are two "Robert J. Sawyer, Toronto, ON", we can assume that both were in the building.
They had the opportunity to meet and talk about their plan (no email about the agreement, but maybe a picture from a security camera?). And they have a motive: publicity, personal hype and a lot of fun!

;-)

HJohnSeptember 15, 2009 9:26 AM

@Clive: "In the UK you would just have convicted yourself under the "Official Secrets Act" and worse in some other states."
___________

Never been to the U.K. Seems like a harsh law.

bethanSeptember 15, 2009 9:38 AM

@misanthrope
"I think, in this debate, too few of you are going into the "whys" of privacy."
for me the fundamental "why" of privacy is the right to be left alone. my pii, my travel, my spending - all of it.

obviously in this society people are going to see what i'm doing, whether with technology or their eyes, but what they record and what they do with the recordings is pretty important in terms of whether i end up being left alone. the motives/intentions of the people writing queries on the database are not in my control, so i choose to have as little of my interesting information as possible in their control.

Pete AustinSeptember 15, 2009 10:48 AM

I bet Orwell didn't totally believe in his pig society either.

It's easier to write SF about dystopias then utopias.

IainSeptember 15, 2009 10:52 AM

@Clive: "In the UK you would just have convicted yourself under the "Official Secrets Act" and worse in some other states."

Hmm - sounds like an urban myth to me- the "Official Secrets Act" used to cover use of accommodation addresses for receipt of mail but I'm pretty sure that section has been repealed.

As far as I know its legal in the UK to put any name you like in a register as long as you are not using the false name for the purpose of fraud.

shovelSeptember 15, 2009 11:31 AM

Whenever someone tries to say that good people shouldn't mind being watched, I say "yeah that's cool!! hey i'll be over later to watch your wife and daughter take showers, since they're not doing anything wrong you won't mind right? "

The MisanthropeSeptember 15, 2009 11:32 AM

@ bethan

"for me the fundamental "why" of privacy is the right to be left alone. my pii, my travel, my spending - all of it."

That's not the answer to a "why" question. Want to try again? Why do you desire privacy?


@ Pete Austin

Ever read the book this is all about? Obviously not. If you had, you wouldn't, in a round-about way, call it a dystopian novel. I read a lot of SF, and I'd characterize the alternate Earth as utopian with a few flaws. Kind of like Canada, right?


@ Kay

"Couldn't it be he set that up on purpose? Just to gut you/us rattling around this topic?"

If he had, could you blame him? You guys have all taken a giant dump on him as a person, not debating his ideas. (See kangaroo's post: "Well, Sawyer has the honor of being one of the only authors I've ever returned to the bookstore for sheer crappiness of writing.")


@ A Nonny Bunny

"It seems the article now has a disclaimer at the top. Who ever said you couldn't effect change in the world by talking on the internet"

If you think that's change, you do a disservice to the brave men and women throughout the ages who have enacted real change. From the civil rights activists who were lynched to the Iranian, Chinese, and other freedom bloggers--those people enacted change. You guys just bullied.

You proved that if a bunch of guys on the internet all gang up and make fun of someone, all the while really not getting what was going on, you can get someone to write something on a website page. Wow, I'm impressed.

Tony H.September 15, 2009 1:23 PM

Schneier: "Are you saying that you don't agree with what you wrote?"

Sawyer: "Of course I'm saying that, Bruce."

Sawyer website: "The following was written as promotion for my science-fiction novel Hominids, and does not necessarily reflect the author's personal views."

So the "necessarily" in the newly added disclaimer is just more promotional ambiguity? It's clearly written by Sawyer in the first person, and seems to refer to real events, but it's not "necessarily" his view. Maybe the best clue that it's an alternative universe is this clanger:

"Dogs routinely have chips implanted to make them easy to find when lost — whereas our own children often disappear without a trace. Ask any parent who has had a son or daughter abducted if some abstract notion of privacy really is more important than the life of their child."

Our children "often disappear without a trace"? That's just tabloid scaremongering, or indeed an alternative Canada.

bethanSeptember 15, 2009 2:10 PM

@Tony H. - i don't know about canada, but in the US, kids disappear without a trace about 150 times a year. huge disruptions in local communities, but on the federal scale it clearly doesn't have the same impact.

however, they'd still disappear even if they had a gps implant. if you can implant it, you can cut it out or neutralize it in some way.

@misanthrope - the right to privacy is very often articulated as the right to be left alone, and it is the reason why i spend so much time on privacy issues. i want to be left alone unless i choose otherwise, and i want the government to not undermine that right.

BernieSeptember 15, 2009 2:31 PM

@Tony H.,

Sawyer's website did not have that disclaimer until recently. In fact, Google's cache as of Sep 5, 2009 13:34:13 GMT show the text going from "First published in Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, October 7, 2002." to "Whenever I visit a tourist attraction..." No disclaimer. No book covers. No quote from Publishers Weekly.

Clive RobinsonSeptember 15, 2009 5:46 PM

@ Iain,

'Hmm - sounds like an urban myth to me- the "Official Secrets Act" used to cover use of accommodation addresses for receipt of mail but I'm pretty sure that section has been repealed.'

When I'm out of the hospital I'll dig out my copies and find the section for you that deals with making false entries in the guest book of a hotel.

Quite a few European countries have similar legislation but grouped with different legislation such as "alien registration" and work rights (definatly don't try it in Turkey their jails realy do not have a sense of fun unless it's the sadistic variety).

Many years ago I spent money with the HMSO to get the copies of the OSAs simply because I did not like "signing a blank cheque" that HM Gov wanted me to (they shove an A5 bit of paper under your nose to sign and it say's you have read it).

In the main they are a very dull convoluted read as is DORA (Defence Of the Realm Act), but there is the odd titbit.

As I said in my post I don't know if that section has been repealed or not, the odd historical way the statuts work in the UK makes it difficult to find out.

Todd KuipersSeptember 15, 2009 7:21 PM

For all his protestations, until recently (yesterday?) this line was at the top of his essay:

"First published in Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, October 7, 2002."

Since Maclean's - Canada's widest read news magazine - does not typically publish promotional material without a disclaimer, I would suggest that all the negative reaction to Sawyer's undisclaimed essay is completely warranted. The article was published in '02 and only now provide a disclaimer? Very bad form, if you don't want people to view you as a "friend of Mussolini".

(I personally have it as one of very few article links I keep around since it's so clearly confused and evokes the mind of the British Labour Party and their ilk.)

edSeptember 15, 2009 8:44 PM

@ Nonny Bunny
(@ "With proper safeguards, there's no reason why any honest person should fear a little benign oversight."
One problem with that is that you may not be able to distinguish benign from malevolent oversight until it turns ugly.)

Well, that would involve the proper safeguards. The problem is, the only adequate safeguards involve reading minds to discern no ill intent (now or in the future), and accurately predicting the future to ensure the data is never compromised. Say hello to the Precrime Unit.

A Nonny BunnySeptember 16, 2009 3:23 AM

@ The Misanthrope
"If you think that's change ..."

If I thought that was change, I wouldn't have put a wink-emoticon at the end ;)


"Why do you desire privacy?"

Aside from the obvious reason -- that we live in a society in which there exists such a thing as shame, even about things that are perfectly normal and legal -- a lack of privacy would also make it difficult to surprise someone. That, after all, entails being able to keep it a secret until you're ready to reveal it.
Of course the shame angle is more interesting. And I'm not sure we would be better off in a world without shame; even shame about perfectly normal and legal things. For example, there's a thrill to doing things you'd be a shamed of getting caught at; it adds a bit of extra spice to life.

Mark RSeptember 16, 2009 7:33 AM

Re: Legality of signing fake names in guest registers in the US

In the episode of The Simpsons where Homer's former-60s-activist mom returns to reunite with Homer, Monty Burns gets her arrested by tricking her into confessing to having signed a national park guest register under a false name.

I don't know whether this had any basis in reality.

hwKeitelSeptember 16, 2009 8:44 AM

"Why do you desire privacy?"

human rights! the difference between public and private!
kissing your wife, dancing naked in you kitchen, sex, family dispute, not having sex, buying a car, arrears, ...

The most stuff in life is personal and affect a small number of people.

The question is: "Why don't you desire privacy?" - I have no answer.

The cutback of privacy is not the answer if privacy is not the cause of the problem.

Freinds of Robert SawyerSeptember 16, 2009 9:46 AM

I propose that all readers of SoS hereafter sign any guest register they encounter as "Robert J. Sawyer, Toronto, ON", so that Mr Sawyer need never again be in need of an alibi.

A Nonny BunnySeptember 16, 2009 10:45 AM

@hwKeitel
> "Why do you desire privacy?"
>
> human rights! the difference between public and private!
> kissing your wife, dancing naked in you kitchen, sex, family
> dispute, not having sex, buying a car, arrears, ...

Why do you need privacy for any of those things? You can dance naked in your kitchen as well with or without spectators.
The reason for desiring privacy is not to do those things, but, more likely, to do those things without feeling embarrassed about doing them. Though really, I can't see the problem with kissing the wife in public, or buying a car in public. Or not-having-sex in public, for that matter.
If you weren't so easily embarrassed, then would you still desire privacy? And if so, why? (Which isn't to suggest there aren't good answers to this question.)

RHSeptember 16, 2009 12:38 PM

The advantage of privacy is that humans have their own interests in mind, not yours. If everyone had exactly the same goals, privacy would be unnecessary, and a hindrance. However, if someone's interests conflict with yours, the extra information revealed by destroying privacy can be used to further their interests without regard to how they damage your interests.

MDHSeptember 17, 2009 12:39 AM

@Bruce Schneier
"I had no idea that you didn't agree with what you wrote. I'm sorry, but I just don't have experience with people writing essays about public policy that are fictional. (Well, I certainly have experience with essays that are not true, but I always assume that the writer believes what he says.)"

You've never read SF? Much of Stanislaw Lem's writing was pseudo-nonfiction. Many have some portion of their text as infodumps which are neither real nor believed by the writer.

David Langford's comp.basilisk FAQ is not real, despite being in the format of a USENET FAQ about a lethal information security danger:

http://www.ansible.co.uk/writing/c-b-faq.html

Real security risk: Gullibility and inability to distinguish fact from fiction.

hwKeitelSeptember 17, 2009 3:26 AM

@A Nonny Bunny:
like you said: it is not about legal and illegal. it is not only about if you are embarrassed. it is about if other people are embarrassed.

you don't have a problem dancing naked in you kitchen, but your boss. you have no problem driving an old car, maybe your client. you don't have a problem buying a no-name dress for your daughter, but she (because her friends have).
gossip and prejudice are very powerfull (he is getting divorced again! she doesn't know who her father is!).
if you are my boss and the newspaper prints: "hwk is a pussy." you may think: "I fire that dude, he is bad for business."
my private life is private until someone makes it public. so I have to be protected.

the question is not about privacy.
it is more about overrated risks and the wrong conclusions.
the question is: Are you able to live your life the way you want?

Bruce SchneierSeptember 17, 2009 6:41 AM

"Real security risk: Gullibility and inability to distinguish fact from fiction."

Possibly. What signs do you see that indicate that it's fiction? Macleans is the Time of Canada; you'd think they would publish fiction as non-fiction.

And why would I ever doubt him? I know him. He said on stage the same things he wrote in the article. He never said to me "wink wink, I'm only saying this stuff to promote my book." It still doesn't make sense to me. It feels like deceit.

Russell CokerSeptember 17, 2009 6:44 AM

Shop receipts are a poor form of alibi unless they can be substantiated by shop security cameras.

At shopping centres there are lots of old receipts on the floor, in the gutter outside, and in shopping trolleys. Finding a receipt for a time a few hours ago that has contents that you might plausibly buy should not be difficult. Then you could just buy the same items, discard the new receipt, and have "evidence".

EFTPOS makes this more risky as I'm sure that the store has records to match bank account numbers to receipt numbers, but verifying that would require checking the receipt with the store database and the bank. Probably if the police were prepared to go to such effort they wouldn't be fooled by a receipt found in the bottom of a trolley.

But if police were at the investigative stage of eliminating people who don't seem likely suspects then it might work.

As for writing essays that you don't believe, I recently had some minor controversy about a satirical blog post I wrote. When I wrote it I thought that having what seemed to be to be quite clear satire at the top and then "But seriously" as the introduction to a legitimate paragraph made things clear. I posted it to a mailing list before I published it and the members of the list loved it. But in a blog post some people got the wrong idea. I'm thinking of linking to the Wikipedia page about satire on all future satirical posts.

A Nonny BunnySeptember 17, 2009 10:20 AM

I don't really see the problem with playing the devil's advocate in an essay. Even if you don't say that's what you're doing. This also doesn't make the essay "fiction". The arguments may not always be very good (or consistent*), but they certainly aren't fictitious either (even if they do involve a bit of science-fiction).

* In particular one thing that bothered me was that, on the one hand it was proposed that only you yourself would have access to your records; and then a little later, the police can just scan the records willy-nilly to see who was standing next to you when you were robbed -- without the robbers consent to access his records.

DavidSeptember 17, 2009 12:15 PM

I don't see the problem with writing an essay that doesn't reflect what you think, then or ever. I do see the problem with writing an essay, getting it published in a major magazine, putting it on one's website without disclaimer, and then claiming to be surprised when somebody does take it as your opinions.

The MisanthropeSeptember 17, 2009 5:43 PM

@ 01

"I see a problem with suddenly adding a disclaimer to your essay, after a fairly long time."

I'm sure he just doesn't feel like arguing with the ravening hordes of fanatics who have stated some pretty nasty and not on-topic things here in Bruce's blog.

And does no one find it at least a little unethical to write someone's name in various guest registers? Or is it just the little people like me who care about ethics and morals? Just curious.

peachpuffSeptember 18, 2009 3:29 AM

@Robert J. Sawyer

Don't be mad a Bruce, he doesn't mean it. He's just saying it to promote his upcoming op-ed piece.

Also, the people who criticized you actually knew your true views. They're fans of yours, trying to ironically promote unofficial t-shirts and mugs with your picture. Everyone here supports you 100%.

Except the people pretending to defend you. They're a team of performance artists who deconstruct the concept of social responsibility by agreeing with randomly chosen people on the Internet.

A Nonny BunnySeptember 18, 2009 4:37 AM

@ 01
"I see a problem with suddenly adding a disclaimer to your essay, after a fairly long time."

Why? Apparently he was unaware that people were mistaking it for something it wasn't until now. Fixing that as soon as you find out seems like the right thing to do to me.

D0RSeptember 18, 2009 6:00 AM

"I am completely surprised that Sawyer's essay was fictional. (...) I have no idea if any of those reflect his personal views. The whole thing makes absolutely no sense to me."

It does not makes sense to me, neither.

LauraOctober 26, 2009 7:39 AM

I think the article may have been set up badly, especially if it is just to promote the book. It should have focused more on the good parts of the technology - the implants and the alibi archives - and less about the issue of privacy.
Though many people on this site point out bad things about the article, I think the point wasn't really about needing less privacy, but needing something like the implants, which I think is actually a good idea.
Sawyer says, "No one but you, or if you disappeared, your family or the police, could access the contents of your black box." This doesn't really seem like a loss of privacy to me. Being constantly recorded isn't an invasion of privacy if it's for your eyes only.

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