Entries Tagged "power"

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My Talk at Google

Last week, I gave a talk at Google. It’s another talk about power and security, my continually evolving topic-of-the-moment that could very well become my next book. This installment is different than the previous talks and interviews, but not different enough that you should feel the need to watch it if you’ve seen the others.

There are things I got wrong. There are contradictions. There are questions I couldn’t answer. But that’s my process, and I’m okay with doing it semi-publicly. As always, I appreciate comments, criticisms, reading suggestions, and so on.

EDITED TO ADD (6/30): Two commentaries on the talk.

EDITED TO ADD (8/1): To date, 14,000 people have watched the talk.

Posted on June 28, 2013 at 2:42 PMView Comments

Preventing Cell Phone Theft through Benefit Denial

Adding a remote kill switch to cell phones would deter theft.

Here we can see how the rise of the surveillance state permeates everything about computer security. On the face of it, this is a good idea. Assuming it works — that 1) it’s not possible for thieves to resurrect phones in order to resell them, and 2) that it’s not possible to turn this system into a denial-of-service attack tool — it would deter crime. The general category of security is “benefit denial,” like ink tags attached to garments in retail stores and car radios that no longer function if removed. But given what we now know, do we trust that the government wouldn’t abuse this system and kill phones for other reasons? Do we trust that media companies won’t kill phones it decided were sharing copyrighted materials? Do we trust that phone companies won’t kill phones from delinquent customers? What might have been a straightforward security system becomes a dangerous tool of control, when you don’t trust those in power.

Posted on June 28, 2013 at 1:37 PMView Comments

What I've Been Thinking About

I’m starting to think about my next book, which will be about power and the Internet — from the perspective of security. My objective will be to describe current trends, explain where those trends are leading us, and discuss alternatives for avoiding that outcome. Many of my recent essays have touched on various facets of this, although I’m still looking for synthesis. These facets include:

  1. The relationship between the Internet and power: how the Internet affects power, and how power affects the Internet. Increasingly, those in power are using information technology to increase their power.
  2. A feudal model of security that leaves users with little control over their data or computing platforms, forcing them to trust the companies that sell the hardware, software, and systems — and allowing those companies to abuse that trust.
  3. The rise of nationalism on the Internet and a cyberwar arms race, both of which play on our fears and which are resulting in increased military involvement in our information infrastructure.
  4. Ubiquitous surveillance for both government and corporate purposes — aided by cloud computing, social networking, and Internet-enabled everything — resulting in a world without any real privacy.
  5. The four tools of Internet oppression — surveillance, censorship, propaganda, and use control — have both government and corporate uses. And these are interrelated; often building tools to fight one as the side effect of facilitating another.
  6. Ill-conceived laws and regulations on behalf of either government or corporate power, either to prop up their business models (copyright protections), fight crime (increased police access to data), or control our actions in cyberspace.
  7. The need for leaks: both whistleblowers and FOIA suits. So much of what the government does to us is shrouded in secrecy, and leaks are the only we know what’s going on. This also applies to the corporate algorithms and systems and control much of our lives.

On the one hand, we need new regimes of trust in the information age. (I wrote about the extensively in my most recent book, Liars and Outliers.) On the other hand, the risks associated with increasing technology might mean that the fear of catastrophic attack will make us unable to create those new regimes.

I believe society is headed down a dangerous path, and that we — as members of society — need to make some hard choices about what sort of world we want to live in. If we maintain our current trajectory, the future does not look good. It’s not clear if we have the social or political will to address the intertwined issues of power, security, and technology, or even have the conversations necessary to understand the decisions we need to make. Writing about topics like this is what I do best, and I hope that a book on this topic will have a positive effect on the discourse.

The working title of the book is Power.com — although that might be too similar to the book Power, Inc. for the final title.

These thoughts are still in draft, and not yet part of a coherent whole. For me, the writing process is how I understand a topic, and the shape of this book will almost certainly change substantially as I write. I’m very interested in what people think about this, especially in terms of solutions. Please pass this around to interested people, and leave comments to this blog post.

Posted on April 1, 2013 at 6:07 AMView Comments

Power and the Internet

All disruptive technologies upset traditional power balances, and the Internet is no exception. The standard story is that it empowers the powerless, but that’s only half the story. The Internet empowers everyone. Powerful institutions might be slow to make use of that new power, but since they are powerful, they can use it more effectively. Governments and corporations have woken up to the fact that not only can they use the Internet, they can control it for their interests. Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and the role of information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an Internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general.

We’ve all lived through the Internet’s disruptive history. Entire industries, like travel agencies and video rental stores, disappeared. Traditional publishing — books, newspapers, encyclopedias, music — lost power, while Amazon and others gained. Advertising-based companies like Google and Facebook gained a lot of power. Microsoft lost power (as hard as that is to believe).

The Internet changed political power as well. Some governments lost power as citizens organized online. Political movements became easier, helping to topple governments. The Obama campaign made revolutionary use of the Internet, both in 2008 and 2012.

And the Internet changed social power, as we collected hundreds of “friends” on Facebook, tweeted our way to fame, and found communities for the most obscure hobbies and interests. And some crimes became easier: impersonation fraud became identity theft, copyright violation became file sharing, and accessing censored materials — political, sexual, cultural — became trivially easy.

Now powerful interests are looking to deliberately steer this influence to their advantage. Some corporations are creating Internet environments that maximize their profitability: Facebook and Google, among many others. Some industries are lobbying for laws that make their particular business models more profitable: telecom carriers want to be able to discriminate between different types of Internet traffic, entertainment companies want to crack down on file sharing, advertisers want unfettered access to data about our habits and preferences.

On the government side, more countries censor the Internet — and do so more effectively — than ever before. Police forces around the world are using Internet data for surveillance, with less judicial oversight and sometimes in advance of any crime. Militaries are fomenting a cyberwar arms race. Internet surveillance — both governmental and commercial — is on the rise, not just in totalitarian states but in Western democracies as well. Both companies and governments rely more on propaganda to create false impressions of public opinion.

In 1996, cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow issued his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” He told governments: “You have no moral right to rule us, nor do you possess any methods of enforcement that we have true reason to fear.” It was a utopian ideal, and many of us believed him. We believed that the Internet generation, those quick to embrace the social changes this new technology brought, would swiftly outmaneuver the more ponderous institutions of the previous era.

Reality turned out to be much more complicated. What we forgot is that technology magnifies power in both directions. When the powerless found the Internet, suddenly they had power. But while the unorganized and nimble were the first to make use of the new technologies, eventually the powerful behemoths woke up to the potential — and they have more power to magnify. And not only does the Internet change power balances, but the powerful can also change the Internet. Does anyone else remember how incompetent the FBI was at investigating Internet crimes in the early 1990s? Or how Internet users ran rings around China’s censors and Middle Eastern secret police? Or how digital cash was going to make government currencies obsolete, and Internet organizing was going to make political parties obsolete? Now all that feels like ancient history.

It’s not all one-sided. The masses can occasionally organize around a specific issue — SOPA/PIPA, the Arab Spring, and so on — and can block some actions by the powerful. But it doesn’t last. The unorganized go back to being unorganized, and powerful interests take back the reins.

Debates over the future of the Internet are morally and politically complex. How do we balance personal privacy against what law enforcement needs to prevent copyright violations? Or child pornography? Is it acceptable to be judged by invisible computer algorithms when being served search results? When being served news articles? When being selected for additional scrutiny by airport security? Do we have a right to correct data about us? To delete it? Do we want computer systems that forget things after some number of years? These are complicated issues that require meaningful debate, international cooperation, and iterative solutions. Does anyone believe we’re up to the task?

We’re not, and that’s the worry. Because if we’re not trying to understand how to shape the Internet so that its good effects outweigh the bad, powerful interests will do all the shaping. The Internet’s design isn’t fixed by natural laws. Its history is a fortuitous accident: an initial lack of commercial interests, governmental benign neglect, military requirements for survivability and resilience, and the natural inclination of computer engineers to build open systems that work simply and easily. This mix of forces that created yesterday’s Internet will not be trusted to create tomorrow’s. Battles over the future of the Internet are going on right now: in legislatures around the world, in international organizations like the International Telecommunications Union and the World Trade Organization, and in Internet standards bodies. The Internet is what we make it, and is constantly being recreated by organizations, companies, and countries with specific interests and agendas. Either we fight for a seat at the table, or the future of the Internet becomes something that is done to us.

This essay appeared as a response to Edge’s annual question, “What *Should* We Be Worried About?

Posted on January 31, 2013 at 7:09 AMView Comments

IT for Oppression

I’ve been thinking a lot about how information technology, and the Internet in particular, is becoming a tool for oppressive governments. As Evgeny Morozov describes in his great book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, repressive regimes all over the world are using the Internet to more efficiently implement surveillance, censorship, and propaganda. And they’re getting really good at it.

For a lot of us who imagined that the Internet would spark an inevitable wave of Internet freedom, this has come as a bit of a surprise. But it turns out that information technology is not just a tool for freedom-fighting rebels under oppressive governments, it’s also a tool for those oppressive governments. Basically, IT magnifies power; the more power you have, the more it can be magnified in IT.

I think we got this wrong — anyone remember John Perry Barlow’s 1996 manifesto? — because, like most technologies, IT technologies are first used by the more agile individuals and groups outside the formal power structures. In the same way criminals can make use of a technological innovation faster than the police can, dissidents in countries all over the world were able to make use of Internet technologies faster than governments could. Unfortunately, and inevitably, governments have caught up.

This is the “security gap” I talk about in the closing chapters of Liars and Outliers.

I thought about all these things as I read this article on how the Syrian government hacked into the computers of dissidents:

The cyberwar in Syria began with a feint. On Feb. 8, 2011, just as the Arab Spring was reaching a crescendo, the government in Damascus suddenly reversed a long-standing ban on websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the Arabic version of Wikipedia. It was an odd move for a regime known for heavy-handed censorship; before the uprising, police regularly arrested bloggers and raided Internet cafes. And it came at an odd time. Less than a month earlier demonstrators in Tunisia, organizing themselves using social networking services, forced their president to flee the country after 23 years in office. Protesters in Egypt used the same tools to stage protests that ultimately led to the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The outgoing regimes in both countries deployed riot police and thugs and tried desperately to block the websites and accounts affiliated with the revolutionaries. For a time, Egypt turned off the Internet altogether.

Syria, however, seemed to be taking the opposite tack. Just as protesters were casting about for the means with which to organize and broadcast their messages, the government appeared to be handing them the keys.

[…]

The first documented attack in the Syrian cyberwar took place in early May 2011, some two months after the start of the uprising. It was a clumsy one. Users who tried to access Facebook in Syria were presented with a fake security certificate that triggered a warning on most browsers. People who ignored it and logged in would be giving up their user name and password, and with them, their private messages and contacts.

I dislike this being called a “cyberwar,” but that’s my only complaint with the article.

There are no easy solutions here, especially because technologies that defend against one of those three things — surveillance, censorship, and propaganda — often make one of the others easier. But this is an important problem to solve if we want the Internet to be a vehicle of freedom and not control.

EDITED TO ADD (12/13): This is a good 90-minute talk about how governments have tried to block Tor.

Posted on November 30, 2012 at 5:23 AMView Comments

Technology is Making Life Harder for Spies

An article from The Economist makes a point that I have been thinking about for a while: the modern technology makes life harder for spies, not easier. It used to be the technology favored spycraft — think James Bond gadgets — but more and more, technology favors spycatchers. The ubiquitous collection of personal data makes it harder to maintain a false identity, ubiquitous eavesdropping makes it harder to communicate securely, the prevalence of cameras makes it harder to not be seen, and so on.

I think this an example of the general tendency of modern information and communications technology to increase power in proportion to existing power. So while technology makes the lone spy more effective, it makes an institutional counterspy organization much more powerful.

Posted on July 26, 2010 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Filming the Police

In at least three U.S. states, it is illegal to film an active duty policeman:

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

Massachusetts attorney June Jensen represented Simon Glik who was arrested for such a recording. She explained, “[T]he statute has been misconstrued by Boston police. You could go to the Boston Common and snap pictures and record if you want.” Legal scholar and professor Jonathan Turley agrees, “The police are basing this claim on a ridiculous reading of the two-party consent surveillance law — requiring all parties to consent to being taped. I have written in the area of surveillance law and can say that this is utter nonsense.”

The courts, however, disagree. A few weeks ago, an Illinois judge rejected a motion to dismiss an eavesdropping charge against Christopher Drew, who recorded his own arrest for selling one-dollar artwork on the streets of Chicago. Although the misdemeanor charges of not having a peddler’s license and peddling in a prohibited area were dropped, Drew is being prosecuted for illegal recording, a Class I felony punishable by 4 to 15 years in prison.

This is a horrible idea, and will make us all less secure. I wrote in 2008:

You cannot evaluate the value of privacy and disclosure unless you account for the relative power levels of the discloser and the disclosee.

If I disclose information to you, your power with respect to me increases. One way to address this power imbalance is for you to similarly disclose information to me. We both have less privacy, but the balance of power is maintained. But this mechanism fails utterly if you and I have different power levels to begin with.

An example will make this clearer. You’re stopped by a police officer, who demands to see identification. Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID; he or she can create a police record attached to your name; he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list. Asking to see the officer’s ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her. The power imbalance is too great, and mutual disclosure does not make it OK.

You can think of your existing power as the exponent in an equation that determines the value, to you, of more information. The more power you have, the more additional power you derive from the new data.

Another example: When your doctor says “take off your clothes,” it makes no sense for you to say, “You first, doc.” The two of you are not engaging in an interaction of equals.

This is the principle that should guide decision-makers when they consider installing surveillance cameras or launching data-mining programs. It’s not enough to open the efforts to public scrutiny. All aspects of government work best when the relative power between the governors and the governed remains as small as possible — when liberty is high and control is low. Forced openness in government reduces the relative power differential between the two, and is generally good. Forced openness in laypeople increases the relative power, and is generally bad.

EDITED TO ADD (7/13): Another article. One jurisdiction in Pennsylvania has explicitly ruled the opposite: that it’s legal to record police officers no matter what.

Posted on June 16, 2010 at 1:36 PMView Comments

Privacy and Power

When I write and speak about privacy, I am regularly confronted with the mutual disclosure argument. Explained in books like David Brin’s The Transparent Society, the argument goes something like this: In a world of ubiquitous surveillance, you’ll know all about me, but I will also know all about you. The government will be watching us, but we’ll also be watching the government. This is different than before, but it’s not automatically worse. And because I know your secrets, you can’t use my secrets as a weapon against me.

This might not be everybody’s idea of utopia — and it certainly doesn’t address the inherent value of privacy — but this theory has a glossy appeal, and could easily be mistaken for a way out of the problem of technology’s continuing erosion of privacy. Except it doesn’t work, because it ignores the crucial dissimilarity of power.

You cannot evaluate the value of privacy and disclosure unless you account for the relative power levels of the discloser and the disclosee.

If I disclose information to you, your power with respect to me increases. One way to address this power imbalance is for you to similarly disclose information to me. We both have less privacy, but the balance of power is maintained. But this mechanism fails utterly if you and I have different power levels to begin with.

An example will make this clearer. You’re stopped by a police officer, who demands to see identification. Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID; he or she can create a police record attached to your name; he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list. Asking to see the officer’s ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her. The power imbalance is too great, and mutual disclosure does not make it OK.

You can think of your existing power as the exponent in an equation that determines the value, to you, of more information. The more power you have, the more additional power you derive from the new data.

Another example: When your doctor says “take off your clothes,” it makes no sense for you to say, “You first, doc.” The two of you are not engaging in an interaction of equals.

This is the principle that should guide decision-makers when they consider installing surveillance cameras or launching data-mining programs. It’s not enough to open the efforts to public scrutiny. All aspects of government work best when the relative power between the governors and the governed remains as small as possible — when liberty is high and control is low. Forced openness in government reduces the relative power differential between the two, and is generally good. Forced openness in laypeople increases the relative power, and is generally bad.

Seventeen-year-old Erik Crespo was arrested in 2005 in connection with a shooting in a New York City elevator. There’s no question that he committed the shooting; it was captured on surveillance-camera videotape. But he claimed that while being interrogated, Detective Christopher Perino tried to talk him out of getting a lawyer, and told him that he had to sign a confession before he could see a judge.

Perino denied, under oath, that he ever questioned Crespo. But Crespo had received an MP3 player as a Christmas gift, and surreptitiously recorded the questioning. The defense brought a transcript and CD into evidence. Shortly thereafter, the prosecution offered Crespo a better deal than originally proffered (seven years rather than 15). Crespo took the deal, and Perino was separately indicted on charges of perjury.

Without that recording, it was the detective’s word against Crespo’s. And who would believe a murder suspect over a New York City detective? That power imbalance was reduced only because Crespo was smart enough to press the “record” button on his MP3 player. Why aren’t all interrogations recorded? Why don’t defendants have the right to those recordings, just as they have the right to an attorney? Police routinely record traffic stops from their squad cars for their own protection; that video record shouldn’t stop once the suspect is no longer a threat.

Cameras make sense when trained on police, and in offices where lawmakers meet with lobbyists, and wherever government officials wield power over the people. Open-government laws, giving the public access to government records and meetings of governmental bodies, also make sense. These all foster liberty.

Ubiquitous surveillance programs that affect everyone without probable cause or warrant, like the National Security Agency’s warrantless eavesdropping programs or various proposals to monitor everything on the internet, foster control. And no one is safer in a political system of control.

This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.

Commentary by David Brin.

Posted on March 11, 2008 at 6:09 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.