When we travel we take our expectations with us, our prejudices, our sense of normality. We see what we see through eyes trained by home.
- Christopher Priest, The Gradual
CryptDB, a project out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, (CSAIL) may be a solution for this problem. In theory, it would let you glean insights from your data without letting even your own personnel “see” that data at all, said Dr. Sam Madden, CSAIL director, on Friday.
“The goal is to run SQL on encrypted data, you don’t even allow your admin to decrypt any of that data and that’s important in cloud storage, Madden said at an SAP-sponsored event at Hack/reduce in Cambridge, Mass.
This is super interesting work that, if successful, could open a lot of sensitive data to mining. However, it needs to be extensively tested.
One thing that is baked into this product, however, is the assumption that large-scale data mining is good or appropriate. I’m not taking a position that it’s wrong, but note that there isn’t any discussion – that I can find – where journalists are thinking through whether such sensitive information should even be mined in the first place. We (seemingly) are foreclosing this basic and very important question and, in the process, eliding a whole series of important social and normative questions.
For many this may be a very enticing future. We can have it, but we must also find a way to know – in great detail, not just in summary form – what happens to our data once we share it with Google, and to retain some control over what it can track and for how long.
It would also help if one could drive through the neighbourhood in one of Google’s autonomous vehicles without having to log into Google Plus, the company’s social network, or any other Google service.
The European regulators are not planning to thwart Google’s agenda or nip innovation in the bud. This is an unflattering portrayal that might benefit Google’s lobbying efforts but has no bearing in reality. Quite the opposite: it is only by taking full stock of the revolutionary nature of Google’s agenda that we can get the company to act more responsibly towards its users.
I think that it’s critically important to recognize just what the regulators are trying to establish: some kind of line in the sand, a line that identifies practices that move against the ethos and civil culture of particular nations. There isn’t anythingnecessarily wrong with this approach to governance. The EU’s approach suggests a deeper engagement with technology than some other nations, insofar as some regulators are questioning technical developments and potentialities on the basis of a legally-instantiated series of normative rights.
Winner, writing all the way back 1986 in his book The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology, recognized that frank discussions around technology and the socio-political norms embedded in it are critical to a functioning democracy. The decisions we make with regards to technical systems can have far-reaching consequences, insofar as (some) technologies become ‘necessary’ over time because of sunk costs, network effects, and their relative positioning compared to competing products. Critically, technologies aren’t neutral: they are shaped within a social framework that is crusted with power relationships. As a consequence, it behooves us to think about how technologies enable particular power relations and whether they are relates that we’re comfortable asserting anew, or reaffirming again.
(If you’re interested in reading some of Winner’s stuff, check out his essay, “Do Artifacts Have Politics.”)
Steve Stecklow, for Reuters, has an special report discussing how Chinese vendor ZTE was able to resell American network infrastructure and surveillance products to the Iranian government. The equipment sold is significant;
Mahmoud Tadjallimehr, a former telecommunications project manager in Iran who has worked for major European and Chinese equipment makers, said the ZTE system supplied to TCI was “country-wide” and was “far more capable of monitoring citizens than I have ever seen in other equipment” sold by other companies to Iran. He said its capabilities included being able “to locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging … emails, chat conversations or web access.”
The ZTE-TCI documents also disclose a backdoor way Iran apparently obtains U.S. technology despite a longtime American ban on non-humanitarian sales to Iran – by purchasing them through a Chinese company.
ZTE’s 907-page “Packing List,” dated July 24, 2011, includes hardware and software products from some of America’s best-known tech companies, including Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Co, Oracle Corp, Cisco Systems Inc, Dell Inc, Juniper Networks Inc and Symantec Corp.
ZTE has partnerships with some of the U.S. firms. In interviews, all of the companies said they had no knowledge of the TCI deal. Several – including HP, Dell, Cisco and Juniper – said in statements they were launching internal investigations after learning about the contract from Reuters.
The sale of Western networking and surveillance equipment/software to the Iranian government isn’t new. In the past, corporate agents for major networking firms explained to me the means by which Iran is successfully importing the equipment; while firms cannot positively know that this is going on, it’s typically because of an intentional willingness to ignore what they strongly suspect is happening. Regardless, the actual sale of this specific equipment – while significant – isn’t the story that Western citizens can do a lot to change at this point.
Really, we should be asking: do we, as citizens of Western nations, believe that manufacturing of these kinds of equipment is permissible? While some degree of surveillance capacity is arguably needed for lawful purposes within a democracy it is theoretically possible to design devices such that they have limited intercept and analysis capability out of the box. In essence, we could demand that certain degrees of friction are baked into the surveillance equipment that is developed, and actively work to prevent companies from producing highly scaleable and multifunctional surveillance equipment and software. Going forward, this could prevent the next sale of significant surveillance equipment to Iran on grounds that the West simply doesn’t have any for (legal) sale.
In the case of government surveillance inefficiency and lack of scaleability are advantageous insofar as they hinder governmental surveillance capabilities. Limited equipment would add time and resources to surveillance-driven operations, and thus demand a greater general intent to conduct surveillance than when authorities have access to easy-to-use, advanced and scalable, surveillance systems.
Legal frameworks are insufficient to protect citizens’ rights and privacy, as has been demonstrated time and time again by governmental extensions or exploitations of legal frameworks. We need a normatively informed limitation of surveillance equipment that is included in the equipment at the vendor-level. Anything less will only legitimize, rather than truly work towards stopping, the spread of surveillance equipment that is used to monitor citizens across the globe.