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Teaching about Privacy and Surveillance: Real Life is not an Episode of ‘24’

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Privacy is an increasingly important social implication of technology, and we spend quite a bit of time about it in our required undergraduate ethics and social implications of technology class, CS 4001. Since we’re talking about privacy, it makes sense to talk about surveillance. Since 2004, I’ve taught a class about The USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently I’ve added a class on information revealed by Edward Snowden. I spend more time preparing for those classes than for any other two or three put together—it’s confusing and complicated. There are provisions of the Patriot Act that are absolutely essential—like broadening the jurisdiction of warrants to tap phones to the entire country (rather than making you get a warrant in each state). And others that are egregious violations of our liberty—like the section 215 provision that lets the government get the records of any organization without a warrant or probable cause and bars the organization from acknowledging the search. The FBI can simply demand the membership list of a mosque—and they have done so. For the last two years, I’ve assigned my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about US warrantless surveillance (“The Program”) and information leaked by Edward Snowden. In our class discussion, we don’t focus on Snowden, but on other people—like NSA analyst Thomas Drake—and the tough decisions they had to make. After class on Tuesday where I carefully spell out what’s allowed under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), I feel like a bit of fool on Thursday when we discuss The Program and the fact that all those rules aren’t really followed anyway.

I do my best not to express any opinions to my class—I present the facts, and ask them what they think. And as much as possible, I emphasize tradeoffs and try to show the issues as complicated. And then I walk back from class and scratch my head—what do I actually think?

After class last week, two things became clearer in my mind. The first is about checks and balances. My children are learning about checks and balances in elementary school social studies class. Checks and balances are fundamental to how our government works. And it suddenly became evident to me that most cases of the system going too far are situations where checks and balances are not occurring. You don’t need a court order to get records with a National Security Letter (NSL). Why not? A secret court like the FISA court could do the job. And if it’s urgent, the review could take place within a reasonable time after the fact (as FISA mandates for surveillance.) It’s too much to ask any one branch of government to police themselves. The FBI needs to pursue things as aggressively as they dare, and the judiciary needs to say, “You may go this far and no farther.” Parts of the Patriot Act removed checks and balances, and procedures without checks and balances are where we get into trouble. Everything you need to know we all learned in elementary school—but somehow, we’ve forgotten it.

The second thought is about means and ends. It is possible for me to describe a fictional situation in which reasonable people would agree that that the ends justify evil means—like recording everyone all the time, or torturing someone for information. If you don’t agree with that statement, make the situation more extreme until you do. But in real life, the evidence for the need is almost never that compelling. If you demand an iron-clad case, you’ll (almost) never say the ends justify evil means in real situations. Real life is not an episode of ’24’.

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Hulk Hogan and Social Media as the New Big Brother

August 4, 2015 1 comment

Have you ever said anything you regret? Anything that is a little bit offensive? Anything that might get you fired? Ever get angry and vent inappropriately? Have you done that any time in the last eight years?

Last week, wrestler Hulk Hogan was released from his contract by the World Wresting Federation (WWE) because he had been recorded in a racist rant eight years earlier. Am I the only person disturbed by this? I don’t condone racism. And I’m not ready to invite Hogan over for tea. But was it a pattern of behavior over time, or just one rant? He apologized for the rant. Are we allowed to be wrong and grow and change any more? No matter what he said, should a person’s life be changed by one rant?

WWE is a publicly traded company, and they are within their rights to fire anyone for not meeting the terms of their contract. I don’t know what Hogan’s contract says, but I’m sure they have a lot of leeway. Hogan has moved over the years from being a feature attraction, to nice to have around, to now a liability—so they let him go. But this is representative of a broader trend: we are moving dangerously close to a world foretold by old science fiction novels. Where one angry moment, captured on video, changes your life. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the government that was responsible for surveillance. In 2015, it’s the public and the media—spread via social media. Social media is the new Big Brother.

OK, at least Hogan knew he was being recorded. That’s not true for the employees of Planned Parenthood who were surreptitiously recorded, and the results edited and shown out of context for political purposes. It’s not true of the employees of Acorn who similarly targeted in 2010. And it’s not true of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded making racist remarks by his girlfriend in his own home. As a result of those remarks, Sterling was forced to sell the team. His case is arguably the most disturbing, because he was in his own home at the time the remarks were made. Lately it seems like we all might be recorded at any time. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in the court of public opinion. 

Hulk Hogan might be a bit racist. A preponderance of reports confirms that Donald Sterling is definitely a racist—that tape was just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how despicable Sterling is, I believe in his right to privacy in his own home. The source of these privacy violations is not the government, but the easy ability to record video and share it over social media. But the solution to our eroding privacy is not clear.

Categories: privacy, social computing Tags:

Anyone feel a chill in here?

June 23, 2013 4 comments

I was about to follow a socialist acquaintance on Twitter this afternoon, and hesitated for a second. It wasn’t rational–it was just a feeling: Is this smart? Is someone watching who is watching radical people?

My own politics are pretty moderate, bordering on boring–I try to see both sides of issues. But I love far left folks–they make me think. And it appalls me that I hesitated with the “follow” button. This is the chilling effect of indiscriminate surveillance.

Categories: privacy, social computing

Why LinkedIn is Creepy: Asymmetry of Visibility

February 3, 2012 12 comments

A friend recently shared this story: he was having trouble finding contact information for an old friend, and it occurred to him that his ex-girlfriend would be in touch. So he looked at his ex’s LinkedIn page to search through her list of contacts.  It turns out, though, that his ex has a premium LinkedIn account, which gives you a list of everyone who has looked at your profile.  She contacted him, “I see you were looking me up….”  This was NOT what he wanted. I suppose if Shakespeare were writing today, this is would be prime material for a modern Comedy of Errors.

What is uncomfortable about this situation is the asymmetry of visibility and awareness. She has a premium account, and can see more. He does not, and was erstwhile unaware that anyone had the ability to track profile views. It’s like a hidden surveillance camera. Principles of social translucence suggest that mutual visibility facilitates successful cooperative behavior. One-way mirrors are creepy.

Over Sharing

October 7, 2011 1 comment

I might play a quick game of Bejeweled Blitz right now, but my friends would see my score. I’m kinda bad at it. It shows your high score for the week to all your friends.  I like the game because it takes one minute to play, and a couple one-minute games is all I have time for most days. But it takes me five or six games at least to get a non-embarrassing score.  Mid-week, I’ll stop in and play one game. At the start of a new week, I know I need 15 to 20 minutes to achieve something approaching dignity in the score my friends see.  And lately I just haven’t had 15 minutes, so I’ve stopped playing altogether.  There’s no way to tell it “don’t share my score.”

More and more social computing apps are over-sharing.  Especially Facebook. On Facebook yesterday in the new  scrolling timeline feature that shows what your friends are doing, I saw a work colleague say something… something edgy to a male friend of his I don’t know.  He would never say anything like that at work. I wanted to cover my eyes–I didn’t need to see that.  I can’t un-see it.

If Facebook’s increased visibility causes problems for work/personal life boundaries, I can only imagine what issues it causes for people who are in a dating phase of life. I am having nightmarish visions of the drama that ensues with people watching their beloved post an innocent comment on a friend’s page and agonizing over whether there is flirting taking place.  This inadvertently happened to me in prehistory (the mid 1990s). Our sysadmin had accidentally left our UNIX history files (the record of commands you’ve typed) readable to others on the system by default, and a fellow grad student I’d gone on a few dates with jealously demanded an explanation for why I was fingering (looking up the online status of) my friend Brian so much.  Um, Brian and I were working on a class project together?

I don’t know why I care whether my friends see my Bejeweled score.  I don’t really–I don’t have any problem blogging about my Bejeweled ineptitude. But it’s just enough disincentive for me to stop playing that game. Going forwards, I imagine sites in general will land on different spots on the “how much to share” spectrum, and people will pick sites to use that are comfortable for their style. But as site designers we still need to understand more deeply how much sharing is too much.

Political Me & Professional Me

August 15, 2011 2 comments

Do you keep your professional and personal identities separate online?  I’ve tried a few times to set up different accounts, but it never quite works. And I know you shouldn’t share anything online you don’t want everyone to see.  Once you share anything with a third party, they could do anything with it–by accident or on purpose. So mostly I try to keep my politics to myself.

This is particularly important to me, because I teach classes with students with a wide range of political views. In particular, I teach our class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism,” which touches on a lot of controversial content. Often I find I have the most in common ethically with some of the students whose political views are most divergent from my own. Whoever they are, I want them to feel comfortable in my class and know that their view of the world is respected and taken seriously (which it is).

I’m not always so careful–I often post things about freedom of speech online, privacy, or protecting our oceans. But I’m not as free to express my views as I’d like to be. This leaves me in a bit of a quandary: My new research project is about encouraging people to be involved in civic affairs. One of our working hypotheses is that giving people public credit for being involved may encourage them to be more involved.  But should they really do that?  I wouldn’t want to encourage people to be politically active in ways that will have unfortunate personal and work consequences for them in the future.  Is being reserved about one’s political views in public being a responsible, pragmatic grown-up, or being a coward?

The public exchange of views is a fundamental premise of democracy.  I believe that encouraging people to be involved is essential. But maybe the new system we’re developing needs to have some reminders–choose your issues carefully!  Or you may regret that posting, like you may come to regret a tattoo–a permanent record of a temporary feeling.

“Zones of Domination”

December 4, 2010 1 comment

In 2000, science fiction author Neal Stephenson gave an inspiring talk at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference. He entitled it “Zones of Domination.”  In the talk, he told the story of a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor. In the “big brother” model of authority, there is one entity and it is irredeemably evil. In Stephenson’s story, he followed our heroic whistleblower as forces from one federal government agency tried to frighten and falsely entrap him, but then the police and courts (local and federal) helped him resist and prevail. Stephenson’s point is that there is not one authority, but many. None are irredeemably evil. And the interesting activity is in the areas of overlap.

Roger Clarke posted some notes on the talk. He summarizes:

Big Brother Threat Model	The Domination Systems Threat Model

one threat			many threats
all-encompassing		has edges
personalised			impersonal
abstract			concrete
rare				ubiquitous
fictional			empirical
centralised			networked
20th century			21st century
irredeemable			redeemable
apocalyptic			realistic

(Roger Clarke, http://www.rogerclarke.com/DV/NotesCFP2K.html#Steph, 2000)

In much of the rhetoric about the Wikileaks incident, it seems to me that people are using a naive “Big Brother” model of government. The Government is one thing, and it is irredeemably evil. We can come to a more nuanced understanding of the situation by adopting a Zones of Domination model. There is not one univocal government–there are many interacting entities. None are irredeemable. The enemy is bureaucracy and opacity. The key to achieving just ends is increasing accountability and transparency within and between branches of government.

In the end, what we have is the hardest research problem in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) one could imagine. And the most important. How do we increase transparency within and between branches of government? How do we do that and at the same time keep sensitive information secure? The presence of the Bradley Manning’s of the world makes this critical problem orders of magnitude harder.

Categories: CSCW, ethics, privacy
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