Category Archives: Technology

Libertarianism And Privacy In The Data Age

The world is changing. It’s happening rapidly. And it’s freaking people out.

Libertarians are concerned that constant surveillance, like that which helped identify the Boston bombers, is an infringement on our privacy. This can be true whether the cameras are public or private, as it’s not hard to justify a subpoena for a company’s tape after a terrorist attack. Couple this with facial recognition software, and eventually tracking people in a public place will be a matter of computing power, not of investigative work. Automotive “black boxes” and licence plate readers (on regular streets and toll roads) offer tremendous opportunities for vehicle tracking, notwithstanding my colleague Doug Mataconis’ concerns about the data we’ll be giving up if we move to driverless cars. It cuts both ways, too, as the government is quickly forced to deal with the oversight of 300 million people with video cameras in their pocket at all times.

And none of this even begins to scratch the surface of the personal tracking device nearly all of us carry — the smartphone. Even when we’re not deliberately “checking in” to a place on Google+ or Facebook, we’re in contact with cell towers, WiFi access points, while our phone can track our location down to a few meters via GPS.

The premise for a dystopian novel writes itself, my friends, and we’re all lining up like lemmings at the edge of the cliff. The question amongst many paranoid libertarians is simple: how do we roll it back?

As a technology fellow myself with a basic understanding of economics, I’m sorry to report that the question is obsolete.

Technology marches forward with little concern for how we want to use it. Data storage capacity (my field) continues to explode, although barely keeping up with the amount of data people want to store. Computing power is still tracking Moore’s law, and now even low-end, low power [and low-cost] processors abound in devices that would have been analog a decade ago (or didn’t exist). And as efficiency, size, and battery technology improves, these technologies become ever-more portable and thus ever-more prevalent.

You’re not sticking this genie back in the bottle. It simply won’t happen. And you know what? I’m here to tell you that perhaps that’s not a bad thing!

I want us to be able to catch the bad guys. There’s the old adage that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, and to an extent that’ actually true. If you don’t want to do the time, don’t do the crime. If someone commits a public bombing, or robs a bank, or kills/maims/rapes someone, I think actually having the tools to track down and catch that person is actually a good thing. It’s not catching criminals that’s the problem here…

…it’s that too many things are crimes.

You see, libertarians can’t roll back the clock on the surveillance/data age. That’s driven by society. But we *can* try to influence something far more important — the scope of what that data is relevant to.

Undoubtedly, we all do things today that are illegal. Usually multiple times before we’ve made it into the office. For some people, those things are as innocuous as not buckling your seat belt, jaywalking, or speeding. However, often those activities are certain things that are much more strongly disfavored by government despite being victimless activities — smoking a little pot, or paying for sex, or playing a little unlicensed poker with friends (or strangers). These are events that normally the government is not aware of, but even if your a target of or an innocent accessory to another investigation, the government can make your life hell if they catch you doing. And with this much data flying around, they can pretty well prove just about anything regarding what you’re doing if they try hard enough. All you need to do is to piss off the wrong petty bureaucrat, and they can work to destroy your life.

The goal is, and always should be, making it harder for the government to harass citizens over victimless crimes. And this can be done whether we have a surveillance state to catch the real criminals or not. The only difference is that when you don’t have a powerful surveillance apparatus (public OR private), fighting for libertarianism doesn’t matter all that much. When you DO have a powerful surveillance apparatus, fighting for libertarianism is absolutely critical.

We live in the surveillance/tracking/data age. That’s not going to change. And the very technologies which enable all the surveillance, tracking, and data collection are the same technologies that are being used daily to make our lives richer, easier, and more convenient. That’s a significant benefit to use personally and to society. It’s up to us to make sure that the unnecessary costs to our freedoms are as minimal as possible.

Are You or Someone You Know a Victim of the Drone Mentality?

In light of the recent white paper release by the DOJ concerning the Obama administration’s drone policy, I thought it would be apropos to repost a post I wrote back in November 2011 entitled: Are You or Someone You Know a Victim of the Drone Mentality? I think it’s very telling how little interest there was by the MSM in reporting the drone policy until the Chosen One was safely reelected. The “anti-war” Left was also fairly quiet for the most part (Glenn Greenwald and a few others excepted).

Are you or someone you know a victim of what Glenn Greenwald calls “the drone mentality”?

[Emphasis original]

I was predictably deluged with responses justifying Obama’s drone attacks on the ground that they are necessary to kill The Terrorists. Reading the responses, I could clearly discern the mentality driving them: I have never heard of 99% of the people my government kills with drones, nor have I ever seen any evidence about them, but I am sure they are Terrorists. That is the drone mentality in both senses of the word; it’s that combination of pure ignorance and blind faith in government authorities that you will inevitably hear from anyone defending President Obama’s militarism.

If you are or have been a victim of this mentality don’t feel bad. I was once a victim of this mentality myself. I once believed that the government was completely incompetent domestically but somehow very efficient in its execution of the so-called war on terror.

The article continues [Emphasis original]

As it turns out, it isn’t only the President’s drone-cheering supporters who have no idea who is being killed by the program they support; neither does the CIA itself. […] Obama’s broad standards for when drone strikes are permitted, and noted that the “bulk” of the drone attacks — the bulk of them – “target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.” As Spencer Ackerman put it: “The CIA is now killing people without knowing who they are, on suspicion of association with terrorist groups”; moreover, the administration refuses to describe what it even means by being “associated” with a Terrorist group (indeed, it steadfastly refuses to tell citizens anything about the legal principles governing its covert drone wars).

Kill ‘em all, let [insert deity here] sort ’em out…is this the policy for combating terrorism now? Is anyone else reading this disturbed by this?

[T]he internal dissent [inside the U.S. government] is grounded in the concern that these drone attacks undermine U.S. objectives by increasing anti-American sentiment in the region (there’s that primitive, inscrutable Muslim culture rearing its head again: they strangely seem to get very angry when foreign governments send sky robots over their countries and blow up their neighbors, teenagers and children)[…] Remember, though: we have to kill The Muslim Terrorists because they have no regard for human life.

Nah, that can’t be it. They hate us because of our freedom. Just ask John Bolton, Rick Santorum, and the rest of the Neocons who are chomping at the bit to start a war with Iran.

How is it that this drone mentality persists and what is the cure?

This is why it’s so imperative to do everything possible to shine a light on the victims of President Obama’s aggression in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere: ignoring the victims, rendering them invisible, is a crucial prerequisite to sustaining propaganda and maintaining support for this militarism (that’s the same reason John Brennan lied — yet again — by assuring Americans that there are no innocent victims of drone attacks). Many people want to hear nothing about these victims — like Tariq — because they don’t want to accept that the leader for whom they cheer and the drone attacks they support are regularly ending the lives of large numbers of innocent people, including children. They believe the fairy tale that the U.S. is only killing Terrorists and “militants” because they want to believe it…

For far too long, I believed this fairy tale myself. I couldn’t handle the truth but I eventually saw the error of my thinking. Government is just as blunt an instrument on foreign battlefields as it is in virtually every domestic aspect of our lives but even more destructive and deadly.

How about you, can you handle the truth?

The truth (according to sources cited in the article) that between 2,359 and 2,959 people (nearly 200 of whom were children) have been killed in 306 documented drone strikes, 85% of which were launched during the administration of the Nobel Peace Prize winner President Barack Obama?

If you are willing to confront the drone mentality head on, I would strongly encourage you to read the rest of Greenwald’s article.

“That’s a Violation of My Privacy!”

In Little Canada, MN the police are trying to argue that Andrew Henderson violated HIPPA (federal healthcare privacy law) when he recorded a police interaction with a third party which required an ambulance. His camera was confiscated, the file was deleted (according to Henderson), and is being charged with “disorderly conduct” and “obstruction of the legal process.” How filming the police from 30 feet away qualifies for either charge is beyond me.

Hat Tips: The Agitator (for the comic strip) and The Drudge Report (for the Little Canda story).

A Question of Labor Scarcity

Cory Doctorow started the New Year with a very interesting piece on the “roboticization of the workforce”. The whole article is worth a read, but it brings up a disturbing question:

But here’s the thing that neither of these articles — or even Bruce’s acid observations — touches on: once technology creates abundance, what possibilities exist for distributing the fruits of that abundance such that the benefits are more evenly felt?

There are plenty of people who will suggest that collectivist economics and centralized redistribution are the answer. Given the last century of history, that’s not an option I like. Take a look at Doctorow’s nightmare scenario:

We’ve been talking about an increase in productivity producing an increase in leisure for a long time, but instead, the “winner take all” world of Brynjolfsson and McAfee often seems to produce a “winner” class that works itself into an early grave by running 100-hour work weeks at astounding payscales, and a much larger “loser” class that works itself into an early grave by working 100-hour weeks in shitty, marginal, grey-economy jobs, trying to stitch together something like an income.

This is bad. However, the nightmare scenario that evolves under socialism is invariably worse. Instead of a winner class created by skilled, high-value work, a winner class develops from people who successfully gain control of the redistribution machine. Giving power to those who covet it is rarely a good idea, but usually unavoidable. The United States was built with a system of government shaped by this insight. By and large, its citizens have profited from keeping checks and balances on power seekers, even as the power seekers have eroded them.

A class of power seekers in control of an economic redistribution machine that replaces labor markets would not be subject to checks and balances. By controlling what people have, they would have absolute, unchecked power. Worse, power seekers tend to be the least sensitive to the wants and needs of the people they control. Even worse, most power seekers see others as resources to be exploited for their benefit.

Terrifying, isn’t it? Surely, we can avoid this by making sure the right people are in charge. Nope, sorry. Eventually, those who want power will take over the redistribution machine. It’s a certainty. Those who seek power will overcome the will of the rest to keep them out. It’s the consistent thread in human history.

The real problem is that we’re approaching a point where the labor market as it’s structured will collide with the efficiency gains caused by technology. If most labor is not scarce enough to allow workers to earn enough to support themselves and their families, how does society respond? How do supporters of economic liberty respond? What new mechanisms can be devised that allow ordinary people to continue to participate freely in the markets for goods and services without the wealth earned from the labor market?

This is stuff supporters of economic liberty need to start thinking about now. Our opponents have a ready answer that people will be drawn to despite its historic failures. Without an alternative from us, tyranny of the default will result in actual tyranny.

Innocence of Jackbooted Thugs

Today may be Constitution Day but given the repeated assaults on this document and those who take their liberties seriously, today doesn’t seem like much of an occasion to be celebrating. Over at The New York Post, Andrea Peyser refers to the treatment of the no longer obscure film maker Nakoula Basseley by the very government that is supposed to protect his individual rights as “appeasing thugs by trampling rights.”

In an episode as shameful as it is un-American, obscure LA filmmaker Nakoula Basseley. Nakoula was picked up by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies acting like jackbooted thugs.

Nakoula was paraded in front of a hostile media, his face hidden behind a scarf reminiscent of Claude Rains in “The Invisible Man,’’ and delivered into the hands of federal authorities for interrogation. Ostensibly, officials wanted to know if a cruddy, little film Nakoula created on a tiny budget violated terms of his probation for financial crimes — because he was forbidden to use the Internet.

Okay, so maybe the film maker violated his probation but I can’t help but think that if he wasn’t on probation, the government wouldn’t find some other law he would have violated. It’s not too difficult to trump up charges against any person living in this “free” country as there are over 27,000 pages of federal code and more than 4,500 possible crimes…surely he would be guilty of committing at least one!

As despicable as the actions on the part of the government are though, what I have a difficulty with is the cheerleaders in the media supporting the government’s actions rather than standing up for Nakoula Basseley’s First Amendment rights or at least questioning the authorities as to whether this was really about his probation violation.

Nakoula Basseley isn’t the only target of the government in this case, however. Peyser continues:

The government also went after YouTube, asking the Google-owned company whether “Innocence’’ violated its terms of usage. To its credit, YouTube refused to take down the film’s trailer in the West, although it yanked the offensive video from several Arab countries.


“Innocence of Muslims’’ tests an American value that liberals and conservatives alike claim they revere: the First Amendment guarantee to freedom of speech, no matter how rude and obnoxious. If you don’t like a work of art — as I despise the famous photo of a crucifix dunked in urine — you have every right to complain. You don’t have the right to burn the infidels who put it there.

Yet under the administration of President Obama, the United States has gone down a dangerous path by appeasing the horde.

“Appeasing the horde” may be part of the Obama administration’s motivation for going after this YouTube video but I think it has as much to do with deflecting responsibility from his disastrous Middle East foreign policy* in an election year. Whatever the administration’s motives, these heavy handed tactics ought to be challenged and exposed by anyone who cares anything about free speech/expression. Kudos to Andrea Peyser for writing an article in such a high-porfile newspaper as The New York Post to expose this assault on this 225th anniversary of the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention. Sadly, she shouldn’t be too surprised if the jackbooted thugs knock on her door next.

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