Friday, March 24, 2006

Some privacy quotations

A couple of quotes on privacy for the weekend, taken from a paper by Michael Curry entitled "The Digital Individual and the Private Realm"*. The first is a reminder on the importance of privacy, and why people who claim that "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" are just wrong. The second is a reminder about how we deal with memories, the past, and change in ourselves...

"...the private realm performs important functions in the life of the individual and the group. It is in private that people have the opportunity to become individuals in the sense that we think of the term."

"We all assume that there are things about us that others will forget, and we are thereby able to feel that we live in a society where there is the possibility of redemption."

* Wow, I get paid to read this stuff? Something went right somewhere... ;)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

We're already there

Further to my last post on social mapping, one thing I've been meaning to blog recently is the "Targeting Benefit Fraud" advertising campaign being run by the DWP. Some adverts are available from the above site.

The slogans run along these lines: "We can compare all sorts of information. So if you're not completely honest, we'll find out." Another one notes that, "We can compare information across government departments", to the same effect. We can see, then, that it's not as if such profiling of the individual is a surreptitious, covert operation.

The tones of the ads are both ominous and a forebearer of how the relationship between government and individual will continue to develop. Technology is here. Currently, it's being used in areas where people have responsibility to the government - i.e. accurate reporting and fraud avoidance. Curiously, it's these areas (where the technology already supposedly is in place) that ID cards are supposed to extend into as well, so perhaps there's some overlap planned there.

Honesty is a funny thing, linked intrinsically with trust. Technology used as it is replaces the need for the trust that we're used to, or at least it's supposed to (as there may be other means to fool the system). A false sense of security aside, perhaps there's nothing wrong with technology used in this way - after all, fraudsters are basically freeriders in the ubiquitous public system.

The slightly scary thing is that such a line - that we're no longer responsibile for our own responsibility, as it were - is now completely, tacitly accepted by the general population. The shift in power has already been made, and no-one's taken any notice.

This is the split between Orwellian vision and reality. 1984 presents a picture so obviously, drastically different to our "own" - an image designed and intended to shock - that we focus on that as what to "look out for" in a Big Brother government. But the people in Orwell's Airstrip One world are obviously asleep to that which controls them. Control comes slowly, and keeping an eye out for it is mostly like watching paint dry - change happens, but we're too busy watching other, "more interesting" stuff at the time, all the time.

It's only a small jump from technology looking to catch traditional fraudsters, to that which seeks to monitor all interactions of importance, for reasons stated previously. The important thing is that we're already half way there, and that going backwards is a lot harder than forwards.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Social Cartography: Mapping the Electorate

Yesterday I wrote another lovely letter about ID cards to my MP - I figured it was fun to strike while the topic is hot.

I'm blogging it here as I think it sums up quite nicely the main reason why I hate the Bill. Namely, when people say that the ID Bill represents "a fundamental shift in the relationship between the citizen and the state", the horrendous thing is not (completely) that the government can see what each individual is doing. The horrendous, yet little-discussed threat is that the government is being handed a map of interpersonal communication and interaction on a total scale. Thus, even if I can see what information the government has "on" me, I am still lacking some information that they have the rights to - information about how I fit in with everyone else.

Why is this a drastic alteration in the state-citizen relationship? Because links are everything. We are social creatures - indeed, governments (along with firms, organisations, schools and unions) are born from our social nature. But these links are complex, and we generally have a difficult time understanding them simply because they are bigger than any single individual. But under a national database of "trusted" contact linkages, the people that "own" the data as a whole suddenly get a very fresh look at how things work.

Take a look at visual complexity to get an idea of how important such maps are - for example, check out the Internet traffic flow map or (more relevantly) the online community map. By tracing the points of contact - the links along which interaction and, by implication, information, trust and friendship are exchanged - you can form an image (whether as a 2D JPG or a notional database structure) to determine strong points and weak points, direction of informational flow, etc. This is the beauty of maps. Once you know what the major bridges are and what routes exist, it becomes extremely easy to start disrupting the network, either by taking out the nodes themselves, or (if that proves too "high publicity") just severing the links.

Thus, the ID Bill represents, effectively, a very feasible form of social chemistry - by which I do not mean a scientifically proven method for MPs to attract members from the opposite benches gender with. Just as we, as a culture, have learnt to control our environment through an understanding of the "networks" of molecules, particles, forces, etc, so now do we have the tools available to start a similar understanding of how our own structures work.

In order to arrive at that comprehension, we need to trace the links and the flows that we see only from our own point of view every day. If ID cards - whether they have PINs, biometrics or nothing more than visual validation - are introduced on a large scale, not only will we have a system that gives us a completely false sense of security (as people without ID cards* won't be part of the system, plus there will always be alternative networks to route information** through), but we'll have one that hands this level of mapping to a government who have no political or legal need to share it with the rest of us.

Will it get abused? The future is uncertain. But democracies are all about uncertainty - hence the call for accountability, transparency and involvement. Why, then, are we taking the risk of losing out on this? Why are we prepared to trust the any government with this in particular, especially when public confidence in our elected is at a generally all-time low?

* i.e. The rest of the world. For now.
** Where information = money, loans, etc.

Addendum: Bah, last time I use that particular blog-posting tool. Apologies to anyone who tried to read it before linebreaks were re-introduced...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Little News Round-up, and Linguistic Battles

A quick few news links...

The FT reports that ID cards could have PINs* (not PIN number numbers), which would extend the range of verification techniques, all the way from a quick visual check, through PINs, to biometric validation (although there's no reason why you need the card for this one, if you're connected to the central database).

(* N.B. The article is supposed to be limited access, but in the hardcopy version, it stopped where the preview stops anyway...)

The hacker in me thinks that more complex security = much more chance of a "way in", or around the system, especially when it comes to automated validation. A system can be set-up for both a "simple" (PIN) check and an "advanced" (biometric) check, with the more advanced one being mandated at the human level, so route round the human (weak) side of things, and it's all of a sudden a lot easier to validate "yourself". Danger, Will Robinson.

Local rag, The Argus had a couple of interesting stories the other day: An apparent increase in "yob" culture" in Brighton, and a note on a Home Office report that says Brighton has 20,000 CCTV cameras, 3rd only to London and Manchester.

No attempt seems to have been made to link the two stories up, but a Liberty spokesperson hints at the problematic limitations of using observation to control behaviour:

"People often feel very uncomfortable being surrounded by hundreds of cameras and in our opinion they often do very little other than monitor innocent citizens."

"Innocent" citizens, maybe. Unfortunately, insobriety has a peculiar effect, freeing us from those social inhibitions that act upon us to regulate our behaviour as we perceive ourselves to be perceived by others. The effect that beer has which results in being able to sing loudly at 3am is exactly the same effect which prevents us from worrying so much about being monitored on CCTV. Indeed, if you believe the TV documentaries, the presence of a camera nearby can often accentuate the urge for exhibitionist behaviour.

In short, CCTV is a social phenomenon, not a technological one - but alcohol is a "cure" for that exact same aspect of "monnitoring", whether it's a solution for monitoring in the workplace, or monitoring elsewhere.

A final observation is also to be made regarding the last story here and the current tennis match over ID Cards between the 2 houses. In one, the debate is centred around the definition of "torture", while in the other the debate is around the definition of "voluntary". I've touched on this before, but the use of language is increasingly important in politics, just as it is in marketing. Accessibility to policy and accountability depends on understanding, shared comprehension. Hammering out this comprehension through language that means the same thing on both sides of the fence is essential, but keep an eye out for its abuse...

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Evidence vs Suspicion

Jack Straw manages to avoid investigation into rendition flights by shifting the burden of proof, claiming that if it had been going on, "it is a fair bet that somebody would have spotted this". In other words, if you can hide something well enough (reading "hide" equally as "repress", "obscure", "mock" or "plain ignore") then it might as well not be happening, and in that case there's no need to check it out.

Precaution is a funny word. In a time when more and more people are being tagged as suspicious until proven innocent, precaution is becoming a way of life. (Precaution and paranoia often start to get blurred too, but that's for another post.) Yet here, once again, we can see it's one rule for the masses, and another for the boys in charge.

Suspicion and evidence are 2 very different things, but the way things are going, the latter will soon be the de jure of the people in charge of the investigations, while the rest of us, whose "power" extends to an exercise in formality once every 4 years, gets left with the fear.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Charged with possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist.

Anyone got a list of information that might be "useful" to a terrorist? How about bus timetables?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sun Tzu's Art of Prayer?

A quick note on the Blair's God stuff - which seems to be keeping the media (ok, the BBC - haven't checked much of the papers out) on track to only highlight one side of the issue - the moral side. Blair's always played the moralistic trump card over the question of judicial legality, which has succeeded in pushing the debate further away from the military/diplomacy side.

Reg Keys does get it though:

Reg Keys ... said Mr Blair was "using God as a get-out for total strategic failure"

Yup. It doesn't completely matter why you went to war. There are further questions about why it went so badly wrong once the decision had been made.

Researchers may want to compare the decision to "tactics" used to deploy IT in government departments. Hint: "Visionaries" only see what they want to see. Reality is a harsh judge of dreamers.

P.S. Things are a bit quiet here recently. I'm still very much thinking about what's involved with technology and politics - moreso than ever, and a lot of the energy is going into much "larger" (bigger-than-blog) thinking, such as essays for academia. Hopefully the two worlds will collide painfully soon enough.