When you really think about the stranglehold that the dominant ISPs have on Internet access services here in the USA, it's easy to be concerned, upset, or even angry. In the past when folks felt this way, protest songs were a common form of both relief and exposition.
If it worked for them, perhaps it can work for us. This made me feel a little bit better, anyway. Enjoy.
To the tune of "Sixteen Tons"
My job is pushing files,
You push 16 gigs,
My service provider,
You push 16 gigs,
I tried to switch providers,
You push 16 gigs,
Our Internet speeds,
- - -
Are you ready for the imagery war -- the war against personal photography and capturing of video? You'd better be.
The title of this piece actually isn't entirely accurate. In some ways, this war isn't just coming, it's already begun. Forces are lining up on both sides, under the radar for most of us so far, but preparing for action. And right now, if I had to place a bet (cash, not bitcoins, please), I'd reluctantly have to predict the anti-imagery folks have the better chance of winning.
There are many facets to this struggle, and they interact in complicated and sometimes even seemingly contradictory ways. It's largely a battle pitting technology against a range of personal sensibilities -- and politics will be playing an enormous role.
And please note the following well -- if we techies attempt to argue that no significant relevant issues actually exist, if we are perceived to be arrogant in our reactions to the various concerns being expressed, we are likely to be steamrolled by the opposition.
I said there were contradictory forces in play, and man, do I mean it.
In the aftermath of the Boston bombings -- cameras were everywhere there -- which while horrendous and tragic, killed and injured fewer people than just a few days of "routine" gun violence here in the USA, we're hearing the predictable calls for vastly expanded government-operated video surveillance networks, even though virtually every study shows that while these systems may be useful in solving crimes after the fact, they are of little to no use in preventing crime or terrorism in the first place. This has proven true even in cities like London, where there's a camera focused on pretty much every individual pimple on each Londoner's face.
In some cities, like New York, the surveillance-industrial complex has its fangs deeply into government for the big bucks. It's there we heard the Police Commissioner -- just hours ago, really -- claim that "privacy is off the table."
And of course, there's the rise of wearable cameras and microphones by law enforcement, generally bringing praise from people who assume they will reduce police misconduct, but also dangerously ignoring a host of critical questions.
Will officers be able to choose when the video is running? How will the video be protected from tampering? How long will it be archived? Can it be demanded by courts? Divorce lawyers? Insurance companies? Can it be enhanced and used to trigger prosecutions of new crimes, perhaps based on items in private homes captured on video when officers enter? What will be the penalties when clips of these videos, often involving people in personal situations of high drama and embarrassment, often through no fault of their own, leak onto video sharing sites?
All of this and more is the gung-ho, government surveillance side of the equation.
But what about the personal photography and video side? What of individual or corporate use of these technologies in public and private spaces?
Will the same politicians promoting government surveillance in all its glory take a similar stance toward nongovernmental applications?
Writing already on the wall suggests not.
Inklings of the battles to come are already visible, if you know where to look.
The push-backs against Google Street View -- more pronounced outside the USA to date but always simmering in the background -- are one obvious example. Even though this imagery is captured either from public thoroughfares or with explicit permission, this extremely useful service has generated considerable angst, and even though the concerns are way overblown, we can't deny the angst itself is real and of political note.
An ironic side note. People not infrequently send me emails asking if I can tell them how to have their homes removed from Street View. I point them at the established procedure, but I always mention that having a gap in the imagery where your home should be is more likely to attract attention to it than anything else. That never seems to dissuade them, however. We're dealing with emotion, not logic.
Governments -- while ever expanding their own surveillance regimes -- can be extremely antagonistic to personal photography.
Only recently has a broad right for individuals to record police activities in public places been established by courts, and trying to exercise that right can still net you a club across the face and a trip to a cell. Individuals are routinely harassed when taking hobby photos of railroads, or bridges, or storefronts -- or pretty much anything these days, based on asserted (but generally unsupportable) security or privacy grounds.
Anti-paparazzi laws restricting personal photography have begun appearing, as have a variety of laws aimed at the perverted practice of "upskirting" -- both classes of laws often subject to much broader interpretation by overzealous authorities.
Laws have been proposed restricting aerial photography in general, and drone-based video capture in particular (the latter already seeing considerable political traction).
And as an outgrowth of parental concerns (particularly regarding third-party Internet postings of associated still and video photography) there are efforts underway to restrict public photography of children by other than their parents -- in a wide variety of public locales -- a topic with a particularly powerful influence on politicians, we should remember.
Laymen often assume that if you're in a public place, you can legally do pretty much whatever you want in these sorts of contexts.
But that's not always true, and is subject to the whims of our increasingly toxic political environment.
For example, many people believe that you can legally, secretly record conversations in public. But this varies state by state. In California, for example, under most circumstances you cannot legally record a conversation, even in public settings, unless all parties to the conversation agree. This holds true regardless of the recording medium -- anything from an old tape machine to the latest wearable video device.
This holds true in mobile environments like personal cars as well, though governmental regulatory focus in that respect is more likely to be aimed initially at perceived cognitive distraction issues.
At the federal level, there is already a concerted push to tightly regulate both handheld and hands-free devices, with a special emphasis on any devices in the visual field that can be used for texting, display of movies, or pretty much anything else. The irony here is that while one could argue that, for example, a wearable GPS mapping display would be less distracting than glancing over at a dash-mounted screen, the capabilities of these devices to engage in a broad range of other potentially more distracting activities will likely attract the attention of insurance companies and regulators (this is actually already a topic of discussion among both groups).
There is in fact something of a possible worst case scenario that we would be foolish to ignore. While techies and many others will be enamored with and responsible in their use of wearable video/audio gear like Google Glass, the potential exists for this class of technology in mass deployment to trigger significant political and regulatory backlash that could negatively affect other types of photography as well -- everything from expensive cameras to the image capturing capabilities of cellphones.
To understand this risk we must remember that politicians generally take the path of least resistance with the highest "CYA" potential.
While spy-cams and other similar tech have long existed, the widespread availability of wearable gear outside that context (note we're not talking only about Google Glass, but the inevitable cheap knock-offs that will not meet Google standards) could, for example, trigger nervous parents' worst fears.
There will be a significant percentage of the population -- including in stores, restaurants, other businesses, or wherever, who will be concerned that in the restroom, or the gym, or the strategy meeting, or wherever, that they just aren't sure that the guy with the glasses isn't actually recording or streaming at that moment. People who have heard stories of malware accessing webcams without lighting the activity lights may never quite trust such signals again.
One would hope that politeness, common sense, and evolving voluntary social conventions would deal with these issues appropriately, reducing the pressure for governmental involvement.
But again, we're dealing here with emotion more than logic, and emotion makes laws. Bad laws usually, but laws nonetheless. And laws are often written with the minority of people who are bad actors in mind, not the bulk of reasonable folks.
We all still end up having to live with these laws, in any case.
I don't have a "magic wand" solution for this situation.
My gut feeling though is that we'd be making an enormous mistake by appearing arrogant about these matters.
Already, in various venues where enthusiastic supporters of such technology gather, the primary attitude most visibly espoused has been to dismiss those persons expressing concerns about these technologies as being "out of touch" or easily ignored or beneath contempt.
If you really want to have politicians and regulators come down like a ton of bricks not only on this technology, but on other aspects of personal photography as well, then by all means continue with that demeanor.
On the other hand, if you'd prefer a more beneficial outcome all around, I'd strongly urge putting aside any arrogance, and instead working with others to engage politicians and regulators in reasoned, logical discussions that actually address their concerns (whether we personally feel that those concerns are valid or not) in a cooperative way. Otherwise, we're likely setting ourselves up for a big fall.
It would be ironic indeed if in the war against personal photography and video, those of us wanting the maximal possible photographic freedom allowed our own swagger to effectively point our own "weapons" at our own heads.
Frankly, I was expecting such a call, and sure enough it arrived yesterday. A reporter for a significant media outlet wanted my opinion on the thesis that YouTube and other video sites should be self-censored and/or censored by governments to remove "all materials" that could "be of help" to would-be terrorists.
This meme is not new, but was inevitably resurrected with word that the Boston bombing brothers supposedly were inspired and trained largely from Internet videos posted by various radical groups.
Now, before we proceed, a few words about the media. It's popular these days to paint mainstream media in particular with a very broad, largely negative brush. In my personal experience, this is mostly unwarranted.
Most reporters I come into contact with -- and this holds true for print, web, radio, and television venues -- are trying to do a good job, often under significant editorial time pressures and associated constraints.
The majority are interested in getting straight information to help them make an accurate presentation. I call these reporters the "seekers of knowledge."
There is however also a minority that are essentially only interested in getting quotes to try add "gravitas" to an already largely pre-written story, article, or other presentation that is predestined to take a particular point of view regardless of what facts come to the reporter's attention. We can call these reporters the "seekers of confirmation."
If your statements to the latter type do not well synchronize with their preconceived ideas and points of view, you can depend on your input being discarded and, most likely, you will never hear from them again.
The reporter who contacted me yesterday was indeed in this second category.
So after I explained to him that not only was the concept of video (or for that matter, other information) censorship that he was proposing a completely abhorrent and utterly impractical attack on civil liberties, I was not surprised when he suddenly "got another call" and quickly terminated the conversation without so much as a thank you.
I believe what really upset him was my explanation that such Internet censorship attempts could actually be extremely counterproductive. They would mainly serve to make it more difficult for authorities to easily observe what sorts of materials were circulating, since censoring of public sites would by no means eliminate "items of concern" from availability, but would instead drive them underground into the so-called "darknets" where, for example, photos and videos related to child abuse remain widely accessible, despite attempts by service providers and authorities to stamp them out.
Especially when dealing with videos or other information that are espousing radical concepts, even violence, censorship is not the answer. Censorship attempts will not be effective, and can very easily make the problems that censorship was aimed to address much worse, not better.
The appropriate response to information of concern is not to try eliminate or block access to those ideas and concepts, but rather to provide more information, better ideas and concepts, a powerful counterpoints.
Trying to censor even outright lies will almost always fail. The antidote to lies is not censorship, but truth.
And truth be told, often the forces of evil are much faster to adopt new technologies to their advantage, while their adversaries stay stuck in old, ineffective methods of battle -- like censorship -- that are as obsolete as lobotomies in the Internet world of the 21st century.
There's a maxim that "for every complex problem there's a simple, wrong answer."
In the wake of the tragedies in Boston, it is to be expected that even many well-meaning individuals and authorities would be desperately searching for a "simple" answer to the complicated, multifaceted specter of terrorism.
But that old saying still holds true. There are no simple solutions for terrorism. Attempts to counter associated videos and related materials with censorship are doomed to failure.
Rather, the answer again is more information, not less.
The answer is straight talk about why terrorism is a path not to justice, but to evil.
We must learn to use the tools of the Internet at least as well as our adversaries, not by playing desperate, hopeless games of censorship Whac-A-Mole, but by uploading light to push out the darkness.
Get to work on those videos.
A couple of days ago on my Google+ feed, I mentioned that this has been one of those weeks where I've really felt that I've been channeling Mr. Spock.
This generated an immediate comment from one of my regular followers, who noted that it seems to him that I'm actually doing that 52 weeks a year.
But as we consider the events in Boston of the last week, it's worth keeping in mind the incredibly bad decisions flowing mainly from emotional responses to 9/11, that appear poised for a repeat performance now.
I don't really need to remind you of the list, but here's just a quick refresher of a few examples. Emotion over logic yielded us DHS and TSA with their heavy-handed abuses, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have been unimaginably expensive in terms of lives and treasure with no real positive results to be seen, the rise of targeted "video game" killings via drones with significant deaths of innocents including children, and generally an increase in anti-U.S. hatred that has radicalized even some American citizens with backgrounds originally void of terrorist leanings at all.
Now, in the wake of the Boston bombings, we're hearing familiar themes once again.
More cameras. Drones galore. Fewer civil liberties.
You know the drill.
Politicians are incredibly sensitive creatures in their ability to sense the public attitude of the moment, especially if it can help them come the next election. Whether or not they act on these signals depends on their perceived risks/benefits analysis.
Thus we see politicos ignoring the will of 90% of the U.S. population in favor of expanded gun background checks, but we also already see these same elected officials now scrambling to jump on the knee-jerk technological surveillance bandwagon, even if a week ago they were taking an essentially contrary stand.
Technological realities are generally not germane to their analytical viewpoints.
We know a lot about domestic video surveillance now, and the overwhelming bulk of evidence suggests that it is relatively useless in stopping terrorist attacks (or even much ordinary crime) and is mainly of use to track down culprits after the damage is already done -- if then.
This proved true even in the case of the Boston bombings, the locale of which must have represented one of the densest concentrations of video and still photography in a single location in history. And even there, despite what you might have heard, highly touted tech such as facial recognition systems apparently played virtually no role at all. The reality is that these systems are only useful under very narrowly defined conditions, the breathless pronouncements of their vested supporters notwithstanding.
And in addition to knee-jerk reactions, we have actual political jerks as well.
Since the capture of the teenage bombing suspect now in hospital -- a naturalized U.S. citizen, by the way -- we've already seen the specter of GOP senators expressing their disdain for the U.S. justice system, demanding that he be declared an "enemy combatant." This despite the fact that based on what we know right now, there is no legal justification for such a determination, and in fact the enemy combatant system -- which could have been better run by "The Three Stooges" -- is tied up in knots of incompetency which make the worst problems in the conventional justice system look trivial by comparison.
And what was unspoken by these U.S. senators was explicitly tweeted by a New York state senator, who apparently graduated from the Air Force Academy without understanding what the Bill of Rights is all about, who blatantly called for "torturing the punk."
To my mind, the sensibilities expressed by these officials are far more dangerous to our civil liberties and way of life than any terrorists.
There are those two words again that so many politicians attempt to ignore: civil liberties.
Understandably pushed into the background during the week was the U.S. House of Representatives passing CISPA legislation that would enable information sharing between government and private industry, that many observers view as rife with the potential for civil liberties abuses.
CISPA is a complex topic. There is no denying that there are actual "cyber" threats. Some of the major Internet firms that had been more openly opposed to previous legislative attempts along these lines have not been presenting formal stances one way or another on CISPA, likely assuming (with some genuine justification from their standpoints) that the current bill is probably the best they could hope to see in the ongoing toxic political atmosphere, and that anything else likely to appear would probably be even worse all around.
In my view, and the view of many others, cyber threats -- while they obviously do exist -- have been vastly overstated by homeland security and military entities, and of course by their affiliated contractor minions in what we might call the "cyberwar-industrial complex" (or my preferred term, the "cyberscare-industrial complex").
Their purpose is clear enough. Sow FUD - Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, in a blatant attempt to accumulate vast resources (both in terms of power and funding) to their own both ostensibly offensive and defensive "cyber" regimes, that will enhance their own organizations, not to mention their post-military employment and financial opportunities.
Cyberfear is perfect for these goals. It's almost impossible to prove that a "cyber attack" (whatever that actually means) came from any particular source, or to defend against such accusations. This makes blaming your current "designated enemy" politically expedient indeed.
There are real world consequences to this approach. Already, we've seen high ranking defense officials claiming that "cyberwar" is more dangerous than conventional terrorism. They impress politicians with carefully rigged demos of imaginary cyber-based infrastructure attacks, and demand ever more money for their "cyber armies."
Until bad publicity got in their way, they were even disgracefully planning to give medals to "cyber troops" (and also to remote drone operators, by the way), who faced absolutely no personal risks compared to our brave troops actually fighting in the trenches.
This is all basically part of a concerted effort to elevate military cyberops to the same level as conventional war -- made all the more explicit by arguments about when a conventional retaliation is justified in response to a cyber attack. And remember, as we just discussed, proving where a cyber attack actually comes from is highly problematic. How handy.
Yet if we pull back a bit and look at the broader picture, we find that the disingenuous nature of these official pronouncements is even more extreme.
The disgraceful fact is that we see officials attempting to equate people being unable to access online banking for a few hours to the situation engendered by a terrorist carrying a suitcase nuke into the heart of a major city.
We see enormously overblown concerns about Internet-based infrastructure attacks, when the reality is that one guy in the desert with conventional explosives could take down a high tension power line and be enormously disruptive, or cut off water to millions by simply blowing away a chunk of a major aqueduct. And so on.
But there's no political "sexiness" -- no major funding or power grab opportunities -- in trying to defend against low tech attacks that can be extremely effective, but nearly impossible to prevent.
Remember, officials shut down the entire Boston area, invoking what could arguably be called a de facto martial law condition, to search for a single teenaged suspect armed only with conventional guns (thanks NRA!) and homemade explosives of a sort that anyone could produce in a few hours after gathering components at the local Walmart.
Which brings us back to CISPA.
At least prior to last week, word from the White House was that President Obama's advisers would urge that he veto CISPA if it reached his desk (after consolidation with any parallel Senate legislation) without significant pro-privacy changes.
That is, this was the word we had prior to the incredibly low tech but still quite effective attacks in Boston, conducted by a pair of youthful brothers who apparently didn't even have an effective escape plan in mind, and despite thousands of video cameras in the immediate vicinity.
Given all that we've reviewed above, I would not be at all surprised to see the president backtrack and now be viewed as being much more accepting of CISPA, bowing to the political pressure that will be actively attempting to conflate even the amateurish attack in Boston -- based on hardware from a hardware store, not from a computer store -- with the exaggerated and self-serving FUD of the cyberscare community. I personally still hope that President Obama holds firm to his originally reported stance in this regard.
More than sixty years ago, Arthur C. Clarke published a short science fiction story called "Superiority" -- that we should very much keep in mind today.
It tells the saga of an interstellar war, where the technologically far superior side, by virtue of diverting so much of its attention and resources to high-tech systems that never really performed as promised by their proponents, were ultimately overwhelmed by their technologically inferior adversaries using comparatively low-tech weapons.
As we consider the aftermath of Boston, and the potential effects of CISPA, it would be unfortunate indeed -- and yes, "highly illogical" -- if we fell into the same trap as the losing side in Clarke's story, all the more so if our civil liberties become collateral damage in the process.
Regular readers have likely seen me write this so many times that you may be rather sick of it by now: "Public is public."
The concept is simple enough. Pretending that information already public can be somehow clawed back, the genie returned to the bottle, is foolhardy, inane, and subject to various impolite invectives as well.
As we've seen again and again ... and yet again ... attempts to block information that has already been widely seen on the Internet will nearly always fail, as the associated data will have been mirrored in so many locales that efforts at retroactive control will only trigger the dreaded "Streisand Effect" -- drawing far more attention to the information in question than would otherwise have been the case. (The Streisand Effect is named after efforts years ago by entertainer Barbra Streisand to suppress posted photos of her Malibu mansion, which resulted in far greater dissemination of those photos as a presumably unintended consequence).
But there's a corollary to my "public is public" axiom that is much less frequently quoted. Even though attempts at Internet censorship will almost all fail in the end, governments and authorities have the capability to make groups' and individuals' lives extremely uncomfortable, painful, or even terminated -- in the process of attempts at censorship, and equally important, by instilling fear to encourage self-censorship in the first place.
We might expect variations of this behavior from China, North Korea, and other totalitarian states with entrenched censorship mentalities, but now comes a startling example from France, the traditional land of liberté, égalité, fraternité itself.
The details are quite breathtaking for their broader implications.
Last month, the DCRI -- pretty much the French equivalent of the British MI5 internal security organization -- asked Wikipedia to remove an article concerning a French military communications facility, an article apparently based entirely on public sources. This piece had apparently been present on the French Wikipedia version for several years.
When Wikipedia asked for justification to remove the article, DCRI reportedly provided none, and the article stayed available.
Late last week, DCRI summoned a French Wikipedia volunteer with article deletion privileges, who had no prior association or even knowledge of the article, and demanded that he delete it. DCRI apparently threatened to hold him in confinement and prosecute him if he did not immediately comply.
Despite his protests that Wikipedia did not operate in this manner, the volunteer was justifiably terrified, and deleted the article.
The aftermath was easy to predict. The original French version of the article was restored by other Wikipedia editors. That page became the most referenced page in the French Wikipedia version over the last few days. And the page has now been translated into various other languages in other Wikipedia editions.
Streisand Effect fully engaged.
But it would be an enormous mistake to assume -- as many observers are doing -- that this incident was simply the result of "fools" in the French intelligence apparatus who "don't understand how the Web works."
Or to put it another way, it isn't always clear if we're dealing with a bumbling Inspector Clouseau or an incredibly dangerous Maximilien de Robespierre.
The clowns represented by the former need not greatly concern us. But the latter are underestimated at our extreme peril, especially since they may believe in a twisted way that they're actually on the side of the angels.
Around the world, governments are attempting to remake the Web and the greater Internet in their own traditional images.
They have significant resources that can be brought to bear, especially when they succeed in redefining Internet-based freedom of speech as national security risks. Shackles, cells, even firing squads and other lethal methodologies are at their disposal.
Increasingly, we see vague and often highly suspect claims of "cyberwar" being bandied about as a predicate at least for vast diversions of power and money to the "cyberscare-industrial complex" -- and even as potential justifications for cyber or physical retaliations against the designated enemies of the moment.
We see this same class of fear tactics being deployed to justify government scanning of private computing and communications facilities, demands for purpose-built surveillance of encrypted communications systems that actually make these systems more vulnerable to black-hat hacking, and a range of other demands from authorities. Since the big cyber-security bucks are now in play, it's understandable why authorities would prefer to concentrate on theoretical computer-based infrastructure risks, rather than the very real risk of explosives in some empty desert area being used to bring down critical high voltage transmission towers.
With cybersecurity as with so much else, "money is honey."
In context, it's obvious that whether we're talking about overbearing government security services apparently using China and North Korea as their new operating paradigms, or the 21st century version of traditional power and money grabs via fear tactics deluxe, we can't help but return to the fact that governments are trying on various fronts to maintain their old authoritarian models of security and censorship in the new world of ubiquitous Internet communications.
And while today's story involved France and Wikipedia, these are only really placeholders of the moment that can be easily substituted with other countries and other organizations -- or individuals -- going forward.
The best of times, the worst of times. We dare not permit the distraction of seeming clowns in the foreground to blind us from the sharp and shiny falling blades of censorship and surveillance lurking just behind, aimed directly at our figurative (and in some horrific cases perhaps quite literal) naked necks.
As I'm typing this at around 16:45 PDT on April Fools' Day, Google's YouTube is running one of the funniest stunts I've seen in years.
On this currently live video feed we have a pair of presenters reading the titles and uploader descriptions of seemingly rather randomly selected YouTube videos. They're not showing the videos mind you (except for a few being "spotlighted") -- just reading texts from large piles of red and white YouTube cards, in a manner reminiscent of some twisted awards ceremony from an alternative universe.
And in fact, this April Fools' Day event is part of a larger gag (one of many deployed by Google for today -- others included "Gmail Blue," "Google Nose," and more).
In this case our presenters are purportedly in the process of announcing every video ever uploaded to YouTube, in preparation for shutting down YouTube for a decade, while the corpus of existing videos is reviewed to select the "best of them all" -- to be announced in 2023, of course.
What's so very fine about this particular joke is the way the pair of presenters (Donald and Kendra) are playing it all absolutely straight, with barely a smile cracked as they intone out loud video descriptions ranging from touching to ludicrous, all of which appear to be 100% absolutely legit. And of course, the juxtaposition of completely unrelated descriptions only adds to the amusement.
But as this delightful spectacle continues to stream onto a screen to my left at this very moment, I'm thinking that there is a deeper meaning in play.
Those YouTube video descriptions -- from serious to silly, from banal to urbane -- and by definition the videos associated with them -- are a cross-section of real life, in all its stupendous variety and wonder.
Soldiers in battle. Dog eating burger. Bad guitar players. A tribute to a lost friend. Millions and millions and millions of videos, every single one meaning something to whomever took the time to upload them.
Lots of people make money posting on YouTube, but vastly more post simply for the joy of sharing what they care about, and within those piles of cards being read aloud today is the very essence of that meaning -- remarkably clear even absent the actual videos themselves.
I think this is a truth worth noting. And since D and K were just provided with chairs at last, it looks like the show may be good to go for quite a while yet!
Even in the midst of this great April Fools' concept, there is a teachable moment in every video upload, in every video description. Together they're a distillation of so many persons' loves (and hates), desires, fantasies and memories.
That's quite remarkable, really.
And it's no joke.