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November 8, 2013

We’re all stylites now
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:04 PM * 79 comments

It’s clear by now that the NSA has been having such an easy time sucking up all of our data as much because our internet providers aggregate it so conveniently as because a compliant power structure authorizes said upsucking. It’s the product of a phenomenon that those of us who work in IT know all too well: the habit of collecting data just in case it’s useful (or saleable, or both) later. Log files. Query patterns. IP addresses. Data, metadata, text, context.

And don’t get me wrong. All that pervasive data collection is useful; I was looking up an IM conversation from 2010 the other day, and found it because I remembered that the word “thoroughgoing” appeared in the passage I was searching for. Imagine doing that with paper letters. I’d be indexing till my brains ran out of my ears.

But suddenly, here we are, staring at the downside of that convenience.

While I was reading Russel Shorto’s recent (and very, very good) book on the history of Amsterdam, this snippet of Dutch social history jumped out at me:

In many ways, the Dutch obliged the Germans in their quest to sort out the country’s racial situation. Dutch society had, over the preceding decades, dealt with the increasing complexity of its social makeup by introducing something it called the pillar system. Pillarization was an effort to keep peace by giving different groups their own social space. The main pillars were Catholic, Protestant, socialist, and liberal. Each group had its institutional structures: its own newspapers, radio stations, schools, even banks. The pillar system had the advantage that it subdivided Dutch society into groups. Jews fell under the socialist pillar. Like everyone else, they were also cataloged; their addresses were on file. All of this made the Nazis’ work easier.

Now, pillarization wasn’t a bad thing, either in intent or initial effect. It was a kind of tool for the construction of a better, more just Netherlands. The goal was a society where different communities could function coherently alongside one another, without the ability to dictate to one another across sectarian boundaries. It was rigid, essentialist, and cobbled-together (putting Jews with socialists, for instance), but those are the kinds of weaknesses that societies smooth out over time.

Unfortunately, time ran out. And when it did, the tool the Dutch had used to make their community work better became the weapon that broke it.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we believed the internet would build a better world for us. It was going to be a tool to boost previously unheard voices, to spread good ideas, to bring light to dark places. There were problems, of course — unclarity about control and ownership, weird wrinkles about privacy and identity, risks of corruption, harrassment, and abuse. But these seemed like the kinds of weaknesses that societies smooth out over time.

Time’s run out again. And I don’t know what to do.

Nota bene, y’all: like Patrick once said, I’m fairly sure this conversation will be much more interesting if no one starts down the “how can you be surprised?” road. I’m not writing this out of either surprise or unsurprise. I’m mostly feeling grief at a the price of our conveniences, fear of the road we’re on, and the same kind of weary helplessness that I get when I contemplate climate change. I wish I knew how to live in a world where these things are realities, because that’s the only one we have.

Comments on We're all stylites now:
#1 ::: Sarah ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 02:40 PM:

Correct me if I'm mistaken, but iirc that was the reason that one of the main activities of the Dutch Resistance was destroying public records.

#2 ::: Brad Hicks (@jbradhicks) ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 03:26 PM:

Somebody asked an interesting question over on Reddit the other day: if ethics were no issue, what is the most interesting science experiment you can imagine? and my answer was that it looks to me as if we could make more advances in understanding disease in the next 50 years than we did in the previous 2000 if we could use NSA-level surveillance for statistical epidemiology. Between massively increasing the size of our datasets, and improving the quality of our datasets by removing the self-reporting problem, and curing the W.E.I.R.D. bias, I'm pretty sure we'd find amazing and useful things.

The reason we can't is the same reason that it became dangerous that the Danish government knew who all the Jews in Denmark were. Even if Danish Jews knew that they were in no danger from their own government from their government knowing this, they had no control over future uses of the data.

By inclination, I'm a big fan of Setec Astronomy. But as a white male with a middle-class education, that's a privileged position for me to take. We can't get there, we may never get there, but we can't there until we can do something to human culture and education that makes us immune to persecution for anything common and/or harmless and/or incurable and innate.

Part of me thinks that the recent progress in social issues, if it doesn't turn out to be a short-lived fad, is reason to hope that we could get there some day. From Magnus Hirshfeld to the Kinseys to Usenet and AIDS activism, the more the public could find out about homosexuality, the harder it became for repressive structures to lie to each individual homosexual that "no, it's just you," the more difficult it became to persecute them.

But we don't know what the limits are. Becker argued in Outsiders that all societies need persecuted minority scapegoats as part of their mechanism for self-definition; societies define themselves, in part, by saying, "we're the people who aren't [x]." Was he right? When we found out that 5% or so of all people are completely homosexual and up to 40% occasionally or situationally, it became impossible to persecute them; will it be any less unjust if society wants to continue to persecute 0.01% for being deviant? (ObSF: Omelas.)

And we don't know how permanent such change can be made to be. After all, after Magnus Hirshfeld's work was published, Germany went through a period of growing acceptance of and safety for homosexuals. Less than two decades later, they were being rounded up and mass-murdered. Dark ages happen.

So as much as I hate privacy, as much as I suck at it personally and as much as I fear that powerful elites use their privacy rights to get away with monstrous crimes against the rest of us and as much as I think we could learn and advance if it didn't exist ... well, we aren't the society that can live without it, and I don't honestly know for certain that it's even possible to get there.

#3 ::: Dave Crisp ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 04:05 PM:

When anyone mentions Pillarisation, I always think of this.

#4 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 04:17 PM:

Not just collecting data because it might be useful (and doing so is cheap and easy), but never throwing it away. I recall working on a process to remove data from database servers by project. We had all sorts of double-checks and levels of authorization to approve this, and still the DBAs only agreed that "delete" meant "mark to delete in 90 days, if someone hasn't come by and said they changed their mind."

#5 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 04:42 PM:

That story about the Nazis using the marvellous Dutch administrative system to hunt down Jews and other "undesirables" has long been a parable to me. It's what I want to shout at the "if you've got nothing to hide, you shouldn't care about your data being collected" crowd.

#6 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 05:19 PM:

Godverdomme, you would mention verzuiling. It just happens that the expert on the system of zuilen was my dissertation adviser.

#7 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 05:25 PM:

Fragano @6:

I am no expert on it. But one doesn't have to be to see how it turned from a useful hack to get a divided society to work together into a dangerous weapon.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 05:38 PM:

And by coincidence, this pair of articles turns up in my Twitter stream (via Dena Shunra):

Big Data Means Kids' "Permanent Records" Might Never Be Erased, and Student Privacy Concerns Prompt Colo. District to Dump inBloom.

It doesn't seem to me that recording their youthful follies for posterity will get our young people out of the socioeconomic hole we've put them in (see the article I Parheliated recently: I'm Gen Y, and I'm Not a Special Snowflake. I'm Broke.). The idea that data is the best way to sort sheep from goats terrifies me—and I'm a goody two-shoes whose record looks pretty good. Heaven help someone who took a little longer to find her feet.

#9 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 06:24 PM:

abi, #8: From that second article:

[T]he company, which received $100 million in grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, faced privacy concerns from the beginning despite assurances that it believes that "student data privacy is a top priority."

Need I remind anyone here that when Facebook first made it big, one of their major recruiting points was the assurance that you, and ONLY you, got to control who could see anything about your account? And that was less than 10 years ago. Just yesterday, I got a notice that they were eliminating [Privacy Setting X]... because it has been circumvented by newer features over which I have no control, and thus no longer serves any useful purpose.

The lure of Big Money will eventually override any possible concern about privacy by a private entity. Sadly, it seems likely that the lure of National Security has the same corrupting effect on public entities.

#10 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 06:34 PM:

Another branch of this problem is the various companies that accumulate your financial. Yeah, those credit cards are convenient, and then a few decades go by and suddenly employers are demanding to see your credit report before they’ll hire you. Because it’s one thing to create a society where increasing numbers of people are driven by financial desperation to seek ever-crappier levels of employment, and another to actually expect employers to hire financially desperate people.

No wonder people wanna publish zines, rage against machines, and run underground with the moles, diggin’ holes.

#11 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 06:53 PM:

The NSA databases are the ultimate opt-out system, with the additional proviso that there's no mechanism for opting out. That''s what we need at a minimum: a way for anyone who doesn't want to be known that well to have their data ignored by the system. Even better would be to make it opt-in; an easy way to do that would be to have NSA buy Facebook and forego their stealthier technologies.

But failing the complete dismantling of NSA (and thank you, whichever demiurge set fire to their new Utah facility), the best we can hope for is some alliance of hackers to act as a Resistance, hacking into and destroying their databases and poisoning their analysis processes. I think this will be the 21st Century equivalent of armed rebellion.

#12 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 07:15 PM:

Abi #7: At the time Lijphart was describing it, he was concerned that the Dutch people were so deferential as to be docile.

#13 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 07:30 PM:

I have never heard of the prewar Dutch “pillar” system, but it reminds me of the way the Ottoman Empire dealt with its major population groups: they were similarly divided into communities, with responsibilities for self-management and duties toward the Sultan. The communities weren’t necessarily geographically based, which is a wonderful counter to the land-based notion of the nation-state. But what does any system like that do with someone who falls between communities? Or someone who adamantly refuses to belong to a community? Or who wants to set up a new, affinity-based communal identity? (Cf. “family” and “fandom.”) For that matter, don’t we all belong to numerous different communities and identities at the same time, depending on how you slice us and our connections?

#14 ::: Soru ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 07:58 PM:

@5: Unfortunately, I suspect that is an argument of the form 'you do X, and then you are invaded by Nazis, and it turns out that sucks'. Which is equally the case for pretty much all X, and so kinda meaningless in terms of saying whether X is good or not.

The real trick is to not get invaded, or otherwise ruled, by the Nazis.

#15 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 09:07 PM:

Soru, #14: Not really. It's actually an expansion of the Law of Unintended Consequences. "You do X, and it's cool and useful and convenient, and then somebody* comes up with a way to exploit it for icky things you never intended, and that sucks."

* Where the "somebody" is much more likely to be your grocery store, or your favorite shopping venue, or your giant multinational corporation, or your democratically-elected government, than it is to be the Nazis.

#16 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2013, 09:28 PM:

John D Berry @ 13

In a system like that, you are basically stuck with "pick a community."

The Austro-Hungarian Empire didn't have the pillar system as fully as the Netherlands, but it had something similar. One of my prized possessions is a copy of my great-grandfather's birth certificate, with the two-headed eagle and the six-pointed star, "registered at the Synagogue in [city]."

It's not so different from the American system; if one parent is white and one black (like my niece and nephew and several of my cousins), you can pick "white" or "black"--there's not really a category for "these categories don't fit."

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 02:17 AM:

One of the differences between Britain and the rest of Europe, a hundred years ago, is that Britain didn't depend on a conscript army. Because they had to make sure that young men did their military service, they had to have central records. And because mobilisation for war depended on calling the reservists back to the colours, they have to maintain those records as men then married and moved to new places, and so on.

In 1914, this record-keeping mobilised huge armies, and sent them to war. And the systems stayed in place afterwards. The records exist of where people lived, and where they moved to, and when. All across Europe the Nazis used the data, and the systems recorded what they did. The records of Vienna show the Jews moving to ghettos in Eastern Europe, and also directly to death camps.

And, partly because of the threat from the Soviet Union, conscript armies and record keeping stayed.

Some countries still maintain the key record elements from those days, because they do have other uses.

I keep hearing that the USA still, in law, requires all young men to register for Selective Service.

You might be surprised what is still required in Britain.

With the War on Terror, I don't think any of that is going to go away. But, in most of Europe, people do have memories of how governments can abuse the records, and it's not just the Nazis. There are plenty of European politicians who lived under the system controlled by the Soviet Union. Why is anyone surprised at Angela Merkel's reaction to being spied on by the NSA? The Spanish were finally rid of Francesco Franco (who is still very dead) some 30 years after the Nazi war. That's still recent enough to be just in personal political memory.

We Brits just got bombed, And our political leadership is getting too young to remember anything so bad. They seem to think Peace in Europe is the normal state.

They say nobody remembers the lessons of History, which conjures up an image of History sitting in her office at Olympus Academy, at the end of a long day, getting reacquainted with a bottle of gin. Except there's a bit of noise in the school-yard.

History looks out of the window. That Germany girl is chasing the USA boy with a mallet of unusual size, and all the Europeans are cheering her on. Even Switzerland.

History drinks a toast.

History drinks many toasts. She is going to have a headache in the morning.

(Regular readers can possibly guess what anime is running in my mind's eye.)

#18 ::: Doug Burbidge ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 02:51 AM:

One challenge is that in some cases, we design and build systems which are genuinely useful and helpful, but where the obvious (or only possible) system architecture is also a totalitarian's wet dream.

An example is the SmartRider cards on my local transit system: the system notes where you get on and get off a bus, train or ferry, and charges you for the distance accordingly. You can add credit to your card over the internet. If your card is lost, stolen or broken, and you have registered your identity, you can recover the credit that was on it. If you clone the card, or hack the card to add credit, the system will notice.

The only simple, robust way to implement this is for the system to simply know exactly what you are doing. (I suspect that there may be a complicated zero-knowledge crypto scheme possible, but I'm not sure. It would certainly be much harder to implement.)

The possible abuses are myriad. A protest was held: who went? Query the database. A national strike was called: who normally travels on the system, but did not on that day? Query the database.

For these systems, the defence cannot be in the design of the IT system, so it must lie in the design of the larger societal system in which it is embedded. And we've already talked about a weakness of this approach.

#19 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 02:51 AM:

SamChevre @ #16: "with the two-headed eagle and the six-pointed star.... " Is that like the flag on the halftrack in the film _The Rabbi's Cat_?

#20 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 06:53 AM:

Don Simpson @ 19

They look similar, but it's the Habsburg (Austrian) eagle, not the Russian one.

#21 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 10:16 AM:

I've recently seen two sides of this. On the one hand, I'm co-researcher on a project for a meditation labyrinth in our library. We want to do a totally anonymous, paper-based survey of users, which ought to be permitted under the rules of our institutional review board. But we both have to go through the entire process of taking review subject anonymity training and creating consent forms as if this were an invasive and potentially dangerous medical experiment. Anyway, there are lots of safeguards for participant information built in to the IRB process. (The training took four hours and included many cautionary examples of shoddy and unethical handling of information.)

On the other hand, there's also a big push in academia for digital initiatives like open access and digital humanities. Open access gets research out from behind institutional paywalls and onto the open web; a good thing, but it removes a level of protection from data that might raise concerns when it's not just articles and theses but also data sets made available. And digital humanities mines just the sort of data the Dutch collected to develop theories about things like migration patterns, socio-economic divisions, language distribution patterns, and so on.

So there's an interesting tension there.

#22 ::: Rick York ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2013, 07:31 PM:


If you have not read Russell Shorto's "The Island at the Center of the World", please do so. I haven't read "Amsterdam" yet but I'm looking forward to it.

Whenever this subject comes up, I refer people to David Brin's "The Transparent Society". It's 14 years old but, it is prescient and very relevant today in light of the universal snooping of the NSA.

#23 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 05:55 AM:

I have The Island at the Center of the World, but haven't read it. It hit my TBR pile during a time crunch; it's about fourth on the bench right now.

Amsterdam jumped the queue for a bunch of reasons, including that I'm more of an Amsterdammer than a New Yorker. It did make me feel like a knockoff Russell Shorto for a while, since I too write about the history and culture of the Netherlands from the perspective of an outsider, albeit less and with less time to research.

My go-to book for universal visibility is Bob Shaw's Other Days, Other Eyes, though that's partly because I'm married to one of the biggest Shaw collectors going.

#24 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 06:44 AM:

"including that I'm more of an Amsterdammer than a New Yorker."

or rather,

"including that I'm more of an Old Amsterdammer than a New one."

Does that joke get made very much where you live? I.e., is there a general consciousness among your fellow city-zens that there's this other, more recent city that was named after your own?

It certainly is an issue in York, England--a point of pride as well as some exasperation, and a bit done-to-death.

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 06:55 AM:

Not a lot of people that I meet know that New York was once Nieuw-Amsterdam (actually, the lineage is a little more complicated than that when you get into the detail, but it's close enough). They don't feel a deep kinship with New York, though Shorto's and others' work may change that over time.

I suspect some of that is language: New York is in America, which is Engelstalig. I have noticed that the Dutch journey far and speak many languages, but don't really regard any place that doesn't speak their own as being really Dutch. And although New Yorkers share many Dutch characteristics, there are also significant differences. The Dutch find Americans, including New Yorkers, baffling at times.

I'm interested to hear whether recent scholarship about the Dutch settlement in Manhattan affects my kids' studies of history and culture. Though it may take another decade or two for it to really percolate into the social studies classes, which means it'll be the next generation that really gets it.

By which time an influx of Dutch water engineers building the flood defenses around Manhattan may be turning New York into Nog-Nieuwere-Amsterdam (Newer Amsterdam Yet).

#26 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 08:05 AM:

I think it's inescapable to me for two reasons:

1) geographical place-names like Tappen Zee, Haarlem, Stuyvesant, Kill van Kull and all the other kills;
2) Elvis Costello's song, to which I won't link for fear that the link will get me gnomed.

An influx of water-engineers! How do you stop *that* flood?

#27 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 09:45 AM:

oldster (26): We don't *want* to stop that flood! It sure beats another flood of the water variety.

#28 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 10:01 AM:

Oldster, you have my gratitude for providing the Elvis Costello earworm, because it displaced the They Might Be Giants earworm that abi's post just above yours induced. (Yes, I know that TMBG's version was a cover. I've only heard the original once, though.)

#29 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 10:18 AM:

Brooklyn, Flatbush, the Bowery, Staten Island...
(And down into Pennsylvania: Schuylkill is the most noticeable there.)

#30 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 10:27 AM:



Amsterdam? Or Constantinople?

#31 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 10:44 AM:

I've had a couple interesting worries about Our Glorious Homeland's current mission to Learn All That Can Be Learned About Everyone.

First, I'm currently engaged in a website project which will make high-powered tools for studying and writing about history available online to everyone. Given that history can be somewhat controversial, (the American Civil War, Roosevelt, Vietnam, etc.) I'm becoming more and more afraid to make such tools available and host such a site.

I'm quite worried what happens when the NSA, FBI or DEA becomes interested in how people are portraying history. To what degree will I be on the hook for someone who wants to write about Cointelpro, Drug Prohibition, the Iraq Wars, or Edward Snowden, not to mention the issues I noted in the paragraph above?

I'm not trying to create the next Wikileaks - I'm perfectly happy with the idea that someone might write about 16th century Italian fashions - but at the same time I'm a Progressive and I'm comfortable with expressing Radical and Liberal points of view (or any point of view) as long as the available documents support someone's arguments.

The other (and very obvious) thing I worry about is the potential of a huge, integrated information system for creating a state that's essentially run a basis of blackmail. Once you know (for example) what kind of sex toys Bill Smith is ordering online it's not hard to develop a program to disseminate that information to Bill Smith's hometown police department, employer, or Pastor.

What's really interesting to me is this: Much of the information the NSA (or other TLAs) collects on us is freely available for purchase from AT&T, Verizon or any ISP or phone company. How long will it be until non-state actors start building private collections of data? We know that the City of Oakland got 7 million to build a data-center, but what about the Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Democratic Party or companies like Equifax?

Next stop, the blackmail wars!

#32 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 10:51 AM:

Alex has been Gnomed. I think there's a bottle of Guiness left. (If not, the best I can offer is some Ramen.)

#33 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 11:24 AM:

It does help if you put the Gnomed in your username, Alex. That way a mod can see it in the recent comments section and pop by the glass-and-steel tower that much faster.

I think you have a point about blackmail; that's the real point of this stuff. There are lots of pieces of information about all of us that we'd rather did not get into the wrong hands. And furthermore, if an agency is known to have a bunch of private information, they're going to be considered reliable enough that anything they make up will be trusted. So even if they don't have anything to besmirch a person with, they can still leave their mark.

#34 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 11:40 AM:

Oldster: Constantinople. The bridge: "Even Old New York was once New Amsterdam..."

I'd rather speak double Dutch to a real double duchess.

#35 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 12:00 PM:

Alex, #31: I've been convinced for about the last 15 years that most if not all of our legislators are controlled by blackmail files. Karl Rove used to be the keeper of them (and was pretty blatant about it, although not in so many words); I don't know who has them now that he's out of favor.

#36 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 01:03 PM:

Equifax and the other 'credit agencies' do have that kind of database, it isn't necessarily accurate, and as long as they get money by selling it, they don't care who buys or what the buyer uses it for. (I assume that the military-intelligence complex is one of the buyers.)

#37 ::: P J Evans has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 01:04 PM:

I have the makings of mushroom pizza....

#38 ::: Mike McHugh ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 02:59 PM:

Alex, #31: it's already happened in the UK: the building trade funded the Consulting Association to track things like " union membership, relationships, friendships and political views, along with surveillance intelligence" (source)

#39 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 03:41 PM:

Alex R @ 31`... what about the Catholic Church, the Mormons, the Democratic Party or companies like Equifax?

Or the GOP.

#40 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 09:21 PM:

Doug Burbidge @ 18: ISTM that such a system could be purged very easily; as soon as someone checks out of transit, delete the record of entry and keep only the current balance. I suppose that makes the issue how the transit agency proves that a charge is legitimate; has there been any debate about whether the agency is more trustworthy about hiding personal records or keeping accurate financial records? OTOH, can you say more about the advantages ascribed to this system? Even the DC Metro (which AFAICT tended to lead in high tech) doesn't have that kind of detail for random riders; is the recovery of the value of a lost card worth all that data munging?

When Massachusetts implemented an electronic toll system (~~15 years ago) there was a great argument over whether to have the transponders be like postage meters (or transit systems that Boston didn't know about then), periodically adding ]value[ and updating the in-transponder record when a toll is charged), rather than the centralized system that was implemented, where the transponder just identifies to the central computer who has just entered or exited. I can see records several months back for my transponder; I suppose that could be useful for a fleet vehicle, but I don't know that it wins much for a personal.

#41 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 11:13 PM:

Serge Broom @ 39

Or the GOP. Or anyone else with 5-10 million dollars to spare annually. Developing an NSA-like infrastructure isn't difficult or particularly expensive: it mainly requires the will to do so.

I expect to hear an argument over the way I've priced it, but I think my estimate is appropriate for a church, big company, or political party with reasonable aspirations towards intelligence gathering. It won't buy zero-day exploits or a room full of special gear at AT&T, but it will buy metadata from big carriers, non-zero-day malware, and a private cloud. Spend a couple million dollars on researchers, programmers and system administrators, then start blackmailing people.

Lee @ 35

I agree completely. In particular, I expect that there is a lot more blackmail on the GOP side. They tend to march in lockstep on some very iffy issues. I don't doubt that some of the Democrats have also been blackmailed, but I don't think it's an epidemic on that side of the aisle.

@ Blackmail in General

I think it's important that we don't over-estimate the suppressive power of what the TLAs are doing. I didn't talk about my history project merely to toot my own horn. I am very seriously concerned about just how bad things are going to be and whether putting more more effort into my website in the current surveillance environment is a waste of time.

I suspect that a lot of knowledgeable people are making similar determinations about what projects should or should not be continued, or whether more money/time should be allocated to security, or whether they will be more restrictive about content than they had planned... Merely opposing a subpoena would bankrupt me, and in my current situation I can't afford serious enmity from a TLA.

As of now I've "gathered my courage to the sticking place" and I'm continuing with the project, but if the news gets much worse I will have to rethink things. Again.

The other issue is that blackmail is time-consuming and difficult. People who are being blackmailed need special handling and careful attention. If you've got the mojo it may be better/cheaper to simply burn someone and hope for a better successor, or burn someone and make sure the successor knows what happened to the predecessor, or simply burn someone pour encourager les autres...

#42 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2013, 11:44 PM:

Alex R @ 41... I'm continuing with the project

My best wishes.

#43 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:09 AM:

Rick York@22:

Even earlier, Bob Shaw's Other Days, Other Eyes.

#44 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:13 AM:

Alex R@41:

Yep. People seem to forget the US has been down this road before under Hoover's FBI. And now we have vast computer power and social networking doing the work of Hoover's agents automatically, with unprecedented cross-matching power, and on a scale that dwarfs all previous efforts by orders of magnitude.

#45 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:24 AM:

CHip @ #40:

It also depends on what features the system claims to provide (and what period of complaint/recovery the system users/operaqtor want).

The London system ("Oyster") provides a function to coalesce travel tickets, to provide you with the cheapest ticket that would cover your travels (NB, I think that is purely on a daily basis), so they will need at a minimum keeping records for one "travel day" (where the concept of a "travel day" is, I believe, complicated).

That way, once you have enough single trips in a day that a "daily travel card" is the cheaper option, the system quietly converts your charges for individual trips into a day travel card.

The reason I say "I think it's limited to daily" is that there's also weekly, monthly and annual travel cards.

And, of course, there needs to be a way for someone to say "hey, I travelled for X a week ago, and you did not downconvert from X to a day travel card at X/2! FIX!" and that requires keeping the records for whatever complaint period there is (plus, possibly, a few days to allow for mail to be sent and acted on).

#46 ::: Neil W ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 07:51 AM:

Before he retired my Dad was a director at a British port. He had regular meetings about security with the Home Office throughout the 90s, at which a man from the Security Service (aka MI5) would attend. From things this man casually said before/after and during tea breaks, it's clear that someone had talked to people from my Dad's previous job which he left in 1983 as he referred to things that they couldn't have found out any other way. Apparently is was hardly sinister at all. My Dad, a smart guy, read two messages from this: 1. You seem okay; and 2. We're watching. I now realise that there was a third implied message: We're competent and serious so you should pay attention when we make suggestions.

So anyway I assume I appear in a file at MI5. And I also assume that for a lot of people in positions of responsibility, it doesn't even have to be blackmail. It just has to get their attention. If the Security Service can find that out about me, they think, they know what they're doing, so when they say they need this done, I'd better do it.

#47 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 09:49 AM:

And they still miss things, because they're looking for needles in huge haystacks (which they insist on enlarging).

#48 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:27 PM:

Let's try a thought experiment--call it Orwell's Wager.

At some point in the future, there is a small probability that we will have a very restrictive state which will punish many of the things that people can now do with relative freedom. Some expressed political opinions now will, in the unlikely event that this state comes into being, get you jailed or killed or simply make you unemployable in the future. Some websites you visit, some friends you have, some churches you attend, some charities you support, will, if this state comes into being, make your life a lot harder. Perhaps you'll get sent to jail. Perhaps you will simply be unable to fly or leave the country. Perhaps you will just not be eligible for many of the jobs you would otherwise be qualified for.

The question is, how willing are you to risk your future well-being on expressing those dissident opinions, or reading those irresponsible websites, or attending those evil churches, or hanging around with those questionable people?. I mean, who needs the hassle? Isn't life hard enough? Besides, you've got kids, a wife/husband, parents who may need support in their old age--you can't just take wild chances like that.

Ubiquitous surveillance (of "metadata") that is kept forever provides a really effective mechanism for this to work. Al Jazeera or Democracy Now may give you better coverage of a lot of stuff than CNN, but are you *sure* you want to risk an audit every year? Going to that Tea Party or Occupy rally might be a true expression of your beliefs, but is it worth finding yourself ineligible for most jobs in your field?

Another part of this is the visible closing of opportunities. In a world where there are lots of jobs and lots of paths to success, threatening a few of them is less scary--maybe you won't be able to get a government job, but you can work in the private sector. But if the private sector is much shrunk and largely has outsourced its opportunities to lower-wage countries, maybe you'd better keep all your options open.

Still another part is centralization of power. The more centralized power is, the fewer levers you need to exert really scary levels of control. If there are thousands of mom-and-pop grocery stores and hardware stores all across America, most of their employees can't be so easily threatened for crossing whatever line the powerful don't want crossed. If they've been replaced by chain stores, then a dozen CEOs can get together and impose a rule that says that, say, some kinds of tweets or facebook posts mean you lose your job, and it affects millions of people.

#49 ::: albatross gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:27 PM:


#50 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 01:49 PM:

PJ Evans @ 47... Yeah... They screwed up because they ignored the small quantity of information they had acquired by traditional means so of course the solution was to acquire MORE information.

#51 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 02:23 PM:

Albatross #48:

The question is, how willing are you to risk your future well-being on expressing those dissident opinions, or reading those irresponsible websites, or attending those evil churches, or hanging around with those questionable people?

Add this: You do not know, and cannot predict, which, what, or who those opinions, websites, churches, and people are.

#52 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 02:55 PM:

Right on schedule, here's the newest entry from the Don't Be Evil Dept.:

Google Has Designed A Throat Tattoo That Is Also A Lie Detector

To be fair, you have to hook the tattoo up to a lie detector. This is just a lie detector sensor. Today. And Progress Marches On!

(Which explains my sore toes.)

#53 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 03:07 PM:

Jim Macdonald @ 51

I'm not sure I agree. We all know who they probably are - reading positive commentary about Occupy is much more likely to result in some kind of sanction than reading The Wall Street Journal. But if there's a big change in US politics, those predictions could go out the window.

So Orwell's wager is really two wagers...

#54 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 03:28 PM:

#52 the Google Lie Detector:

"It is contemplated that a user that may be nervous or engaging in speaking falsehoods may exhibit different galvanic skin response than a more confident, truth telling individual."

It may be contemplated, but it isn't, in fact, true. This is long-disproved science.

#55 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 03:33 PM:

Jim Macdonald @ 54: Entirely true, that part about untruth, which I doubt will stop it from being used as though it were true.

#56 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:48 PM:

Chris Lawson, #44:

Speaking of Hoover's FBI, someone has just obtained (part of?) Isaac Asimov's FBI file.

(Disclaimer: Not necessarily interesting.)

On 4/20/54 REDACTED SOMEBODY advised [Special Agent, I think] REDACTED NAME that she and her REDACTED NOUN, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, were "science fiction" enthusiasts and in 1952 or 1953 attended a three day convention at the Henry Hudson Hotel, NYC. It was confided to her at the convention by REDACTED NAME that Science Fiction Magazines did a large amount of "blind" publishing for the CP [Communist Party].

#57 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 06:50 PM:

For discussing scrutiny of Isaac Asimov by the old-fashioned surveillance state.

I could share a couple of Macintoshes, if the Gnomes are hungry.

#58 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 07:44 PM:

Long-disproved pseudo-science. (FTFY.)

#59 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 08:18 PM:

Allan Beatty @ 58

Orwell's wager says that lie detectors protect us from Terrorists, Muslims, and Commies, or else!!

#60 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 08:24 PM:

Bill 57: I could share a couple of Macintoshes, if the Gnomes are hungry.

Why would they want to eat old raincoats?

#61 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2013, 10:08 PM:

Xopher @ 60: because he really meant old Canadian toffee bars? (As I wait for somebody more familiar with Canadian candies to say "Of course they're still selling!")

#62 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 01:20 AM:

The FBI and the CIA routinely use lie detectors on their own people; agreeing to that is one of the conditions of employment. This ensures an organizational belief in the efficacy of lie detectors.

#63 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 01:27 AM:

Another great danger in the electronic panopticon is that there will be a huge number of false positives. Even if the masters of surveillance are honest, sincere, and competent, they will inevitably crush the lives of many innocents. And what are the odds they'll be any of those things? We already know of NSA analysts who have shared emails because of their sexual content. How much farther is it to using the information they gather to settle personal feuds or extort financial or sexual favors? Or simply follow up the false positives without caring?

#64 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 08:11 AM:

Reliance on lie detectors reminds me of the fake mine detectors story (I think Jim posted it here a while back, but am too lazy to find the proper ML version).

Whether it's sunk costs, or a fundamental failure to understand the concept of "evidence", it seems that once people start using something like this, they're extremely reluctant to give it up.

#65 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 10:25 AM:

Lila: That would have been Dowsing For Dynamite.

#66 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 10:36 AM:

Didn't the 'theory' behind lie detectors originate with the creator of Wonder Woman?

#68 ::: E. Liddell ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 12:43 PM:

Xopher@60: My first thought was "feeding the gnomes old computers might be dangerous". Guess that shows where my preoccupations lie!

CHip@61: I'll have to check on that the next time I'm at an appropriate store—I have something of a soft spot for those toffee bars, although I haven't eaten one in years.

@lie detectors: Even if science did back them up, what sane person would not be nervous under circumstances which required them to be tested with a lie detector? Seems to me that would pretty much destroy their usefulness right there.

#69 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 02:21 PM:

I'm thinking that lie detectors, like footprint and bite-mark forensic analysis, fall into the broad category of "rational astrology." Most people who deal with them or even think about them much know they're probably not very reliable, but for institutional reasons, it's often useful for everyone to pretend to believe they work fine. I wouldn't be surprised if our torture programs had a lot of support from the same phenomenon--even when the guy applying the electrodes to your sensitive bits knows full well that whatever answers you shriek out to get the pain to stop probably aren't all that reliable, once there is an institutional commitment to using that information, it becomes something people have to pretend to think is reliable. And people outside the loop (often management types) can then come to drink deeply from the kool-aid that their own decisions have caused to be made.

Even if the people implementing the anti-terrorism policy of your choice (massive wiretapping, TSA groping, drone strikes, torture, etc.) know it has a lot of problems and might not even make much sense, once they're not allowed to say so, once they know that they must solemnly pretend it works and is saving democracy right now, then they will sometimes half convince themselves, and will often convince the less informed.

#70 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 02:56 PM:

How again did they manage to catch Aldrich Ames? Not with a lie detector, if I remember correctly.

#71 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 02:57 PM:

albatross @ 69... It's all about ritualistic theater.

#72 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 03:40 PM:

Regarding false positives, I am reminded of one of the possible progressions of that, as given in "Agents of Chaos" by Norman Spinrad, where (rot 13)

Gurer ner vafgnag qrngu enqvbnpgvir cbjrerq abqhyrf va nyy jnyyf, juvpu ner pynvzrq gb or frg bss ol erzbgr pbageby ol gur crbcyr va punetr, jura gurl svaq fbzrbar va gung ebbz orvat eroryyvbhf va nal jnl. Gur npghny snpg vf gung gurl cbc ng enaqbz orpnhfr gurl ner onfrq ba enqvbnpgvir fghss; vg vf engvbanyvfrq ol gur choyvp ng ynetr nf cebivat gung gur qrnq crefba jnf ratntrq va fbzr eroryyvbhf npgvivgl.

#73 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 08:47 PM:

E. 68: I'd been reading Dorothy Sayers, or my mind might have gone the same place.

About lie detectors, I think the way they've been used for the past few decades is that people believe they work, and the experienced examiner uses their nervousness to make it easier to tell when they're lying, which s/he does by all the old methods. One example (which I heard second hand from someone who'd attended a lecture on the topic): when asked about a crime, the innocent person says "I didn't do it," whereas the guilty one says "I'm innocent" (presumably because their lawyer told them they're innocent until proven guilty, so it's not a lie, see?).

albatross 69: If science were any strong influence on law, eye-witness testimony would not be allowed, and no teenager would ever be tried as an adult.

Personally, I think the world would be a better place. But my membership in the pro-science wing of the left is well-known and lifelong.

#74 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: November 12, 2013, 11:08 PM:

albatross @ 48

Orwell's Wager.

I've been rolling the phrase around on my tongue all day. It's a lovely, lovely, piece of language, and I'm eagerly awaiting the moment when I can use it in a conversation.

#75 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 14, 2013, 07:52 PM:

abi @25: The Dutch find Americans, including New Yorkers, baffling at times.

My upstairs neighbor is from Amsterdam. I've speculated that it would be entertaining to aim you two at each other and have you play Dueling Expats. :-)

#76 ::: Eduard ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2013, 02:00 PM:

Some notes on pillarisation in the Netherlands:

Although the divide between different pillars of Dutch society was very deep indeed, the system of verzuiling was never official and the government kept no records of who belonged to what pillar. However, they did (and still do) keep track of church membership and that proved unfortunate.

There is no simple way of making a classification of pillars, because the minor pillars sometimes did not have the numbers to form their own political party, broadcasting association or football competition, so that their members had to resort to organisations that were not affiliated with their own pillar.

This segregation of the Dutch society was resented by the liberal and socialist pillars, who only gave up their resistance to a segregated education system when they could get general suffrage in return (in the ‘pacification of 1917’). The liberal pillar in particular had no real structure and was quite diverse.

Anyway, to state the reason for this post: it is not true that Jewish people were grouped under the socialist pillar. They might have belonged to the smaller Jewish pillar or to one of the secular ones.

And to go a bit beyond the topic: I think one cannot really speak of less than five main pillars: distinction should be made between hervormd (‘reformed’) and gereformeerd (‘reformed’) protestantism. (And then, of course, there were many smaller protestant pillars, which I will not try to list in English. Their names invariably translate to ‘reformed’ and are difficult to differentiate between even in the Dutch language.)

#77 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2013, 02:29 PM:

albatross @ 69

The term rational astrology comes from Steve Randy Waldman, and doesn't require that the activity be reliable/beneficial at all.

It's one of those exceedingly helpful categories.

#78 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2013, 02:55 PM:

Jim Macdonald @54: WRT lie detectors: This is long-disproved science.

Liar, Liar, Pants Aflame

#79 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2013, 03:04 PM:

Being too open about how silly the rational astrology is can get you into trouble. You know, if that dowsing rod guy had only had a little more political pull, I'll bet he could have gotten people arrested for teaching how to defeat his device, too.

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