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...


Robin Wilton said...

Indeed. Good points. Think, for instance, of the extremely effective use law enforcers, insurance companies &c have made of those 'hub and spoke' relationship analysis packages, to figure out the structure of crime/fraud networks.

The other piece of 'total perspective' information which really disturbs me (and I think I've blogged about it already) is the whole DNA thing. DNA doesn't just identify one individual... it also gives you 50% of the identity data of a cluster of other individuals around that person.

I think that aspect of 'identifiability' is also going to have a profound effect on the citizen/state relationship, especially in terms of people's current assumptions about privacy and personally identifiable information.

Watching Them, Watching Us said...

have a look at i2 Analyst Notebook (link analysis, transaction timelines etc.) or PatternTracer (for phone or email logfiles) for the most popular and widespread visualisation software used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

It is frighteningly easy for innocent people to be swept up in "guilt by association" trawls during an investigation and for the resulting charts and diagrams to be sent to foreign police or intelligence agencies, branding everyone on them as a "suspect" of some sort, but without any background exonerating information and local knowledge.

Perhaps this is how Gerry Adams was detained for an hour yesterday in the USA, despite having just been to the White House, because his name (without background data) or a similar name, was on a terrorist watch list.

Scribe said...

Hi Robin, welcome to ITM... Good point about the DNA side of things, which is a side of "information leakage" apart from a) that which we consciously let out (e.g. CVs) and b) that which we leave behind without realising. It's also one of the few that we have control over (even legally - there's no way to get your DNA removed from the Police database if they don't want to).

AFAICS there are 2 things that disrupt this increased level of "network surveillance" (aside from not connecting in the first place). 1 is obviously anonymity measures, such as Tor. The other is dilution through increased connectivity, so you don't get associated with any particular individual or group. Once you know that a particular "social profile" is being watched, you can put in place such entropic countermeasures to place less "network weight" on the connections you're *really* interested in.

More on this soon, I hope...

Robin Wilton said...

Hmmm. I don't think I'm very optimistic about the 'dilution' option. The 'link analysis' techniques already available do a great job of establishing the links between different people who don't wish to be associated.

Isn't it likely to be a simpler task to figure out the links between different 'personae' of a single individual?