David Brin talks sousveillance

Paul Raven @ 23-05-2011

Still got a lot of metaphorical balls in the air here, so continued quietness will be the norm for a few more days. In the meantime, here’s Ben Goertzel interviewing David Brin at H+ Magazine; regular readers will know that I’m very interested in Brin’s “Transparent Society” ideas, and sousveillance is the subject matter at hand. Snip:

Brin: Essentially, this is the greatest of all human experiments.  In theory… sousveillance should eventually equilibrate into a situation where people (for their own sakes and because they believe in the Golden Rule, and because they will be caught if they violate it) eagerly and fiercely zoom in upon areas where others might be conniving or scheming or cheating or pursuing grossly-harmful deluded paths…

… while looking away when none of these dangers apply. A socially sanctioned discretion based on “none of my business” and leaving each other alone… because you’ll want that other person to be your ally next time, when YOU are the one saying “make that guy leave me alone!”

That is where it should wind up.  If we’re capable of calm, or rationality and acting in our own self-interest.  It is stylishly cynical for most people to guffaw, at this point and assume this is a fairy tale. I can just hear some readers muttering “Humans aren’t like that!”

Well, maybe not. But I have seen plenty of evidence that we are now more like that than our ancestors ever imagined they could be.  The goal may not be attainable.  But we’ve already taken strides in that direction.

Goertzel: Hmmmm….  I definitely see this “best of both worlds” scenario as one possible attractor that a sousveillant society could fall into, but not necessarily the only one.  I suppose we could also have convergence to other, very different attractors, for instance ones in which there really is no privacy because endless spying has become the culture; and ones in which uneasy middle-grounds between surveillance and sousveillance arise, with companies and other organizations enforcing cultures of mutual overwhelming sousveillance among their employees or members.

Just as the current set of technologies has led to a variety of different cultural “attractors” in different places, based on complex reasons.

Brin: This is essentially my point. The old attractor states are immensely powerful.  Remember that 99% of post agricultural societies had no freedom because the oligarchs wanted it that way and they controlled the information flows.  That kind of feudal-aristocratic, top-down dominance always looms, ready to take over.  In fact, I think so-called Culture War is essentially an effort to discredit the “smartypants” intellectual elites who might challenge authoritarian/oligarchic attractor states, in favor of others that are based upon calm reason.

The odds have always been against the Enlightenment methodology – the core technique underlying our markets, democracy and science – called Reciprocal Accountability. On the other hand, sousveillance is nothing more or less than the final reification of that methodology.  Look, I want sousveillance primarily because it will end forever the threat of top-down tyranny.  But the core question you are zeroing in on, here, is a very smart one – could the cure be worse than the disease?

It’s also the sort of question that could only be answered one way: by trying it out. Obviously a global roll-out is never going to happen, but this is the sort of thing a small nimble post-geographical state – Iceland, I’m looking at you! – could pilot quite easily. My argument in favour is that the technology of surveillance isn’t going away, and if the choice is undersight or oversight, I’m going with undersight every time.

Interestingly enough, I tend to find that the people who argue in favour of panopticon surveillance with the tired and demonstrably false canard “if you’re doing nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear!” are completely unwilling to apply the same reasoning to being surveilled by their fellow citizens. Guessing the reasons why that might be so are left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂


Scott Adams’ transparent burbclave

Paul Raven @ 17-03-2011

Via SlashDot, here’s a provocative post from Scott “Dilbert” Adams where he contemplates the costs of privacy, by trying to imagine a sort of gated community where you surrender a lot of privacy in exchange for living in more affordable, safe and efficient environment. It’s like a hybrid of David Brin’s Transparent Society and Neal Stephenson’s burbclaves… and given how certain sections of the US seem to be reading Snow Crash as a manual of statecraft rather than a dystopian warning, maybe Noprivacyville isn’t as ludicrous as you’d initially imagine.

Although you would never live in a city without privacy, I think that if one could save 30% on basic living expenses, and live in a relatively crime-free area, plenty of volunteers would come forward.

Let’s assume that residents of this city agree to get “chipped” so their locations are always known. Everyone’s online activities are also tracked, as are all purchases, and so on. We’ll have to assume this hypothetical city exists in the not-so-distant future when technology can handle everything I’m about to describe.

This city of no privacy wouldn’t need much of a police force because no criminal would agree to live in such a monitored situation. And let’s assume you have to have a chip to enter the city at all. The few crooks that might make the mistake of opting in would be easy to round up. If anything big went down, you could contract with neighboring towns to get SWAT support in emergency situations.

You wouldn’t need police to catch speeders. Cars would automatically report the speed and location of every driver.  That sucks, you say, because you usually speed, and you like it. But consider that speed limits in this hypothetical town would be much higher than normal because every car would be aware of the location of every other car, every child, and every pet. Accidents could be nearly eliminated.

Healthcare costs might plunge with the elimination of privacy. For example, your pill container would monitor whether you took your prescription pills on schedule. I understand that noncompliance of doctor-ordered dosing is a huge problem, especially with older folks.

Interesting to see Adams factoring in one inevitable outcome of a transparent society, wherein things that we’re obliged to keep secret become a much smaller deal once it’s clear to see that they’re actually quite common; I’ve talked about this in relation to today’s teenagers and their propensity for publicly displaying their transgressions of “acceptable” behaviour, but Adams uses it to highlight health insurance issues as well:

Employment would seem problematic in this world of no privacy. You assume that no employer would hire someone who has risky lifestyle preferences, or DNA that suggests major health problems. But I’ll bet employers would learn that everyone has issues of one kind or another, so hiring a qualified candidate who might later become ill will look like a good deal. And on the plus side, employers would rarely hire someone who had a bad employment record, as that information would not be as hidden as it is today. Bad workers would end up voluntarily moving out of the city to find work. Imagine a world where your coworkers are competent. You might need a lack of privacy to get to that happy situation.

Just to be clear, I’m not holding up Adams’ hypothetical city as some sort of ideal or exemplar that I’d want to live in (and I’m not sure that Adams is trying to do that either), but he’s raising some interesting points about the power of transparency to fix prices and squelch certain social ills. However, implicit in Noprivacyville is some sort of panopticon governance system; your basic choices there are rhizomatic or hierarchical, which would make for very different living experiences and degrees of personal involvement with the politics of your new city-state.

I’m sure someone will tell me how I’m totally wrong about this, but I’m convinced we’ll see experiments of both sorts in the relatively near future as the nation-state model continues to collapse under its own structural weight. As Adams says, plenty of people would see Noprivacyville as a worthwhile exchange; how long they’d retain that opinion, however, is very much an open question.


Swivelchair holidays in the global Transparent Society

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

It’s been a while since it cropped up last, but regular readers may well remember my fascination with David Brin’s Transparent Society. My (and Brin’s) principle objection to the proliferation of surveillance cameras isn’t that they exist, but that they’re private; if they were publicly accessible to anyone, the panopticon suddenly inverts itself into something a lot less sinister. (Or simply sinister in a different way, I suppose, depending on your personal politics of privacy.)

By definition, closed circuit surveillance can’t be viewed by anyone without a physical connection to the device. But CCTV is being rapidly outpaced by networked IP cameras, accessed via the internet… and as this Ars Technica piece makes clear, a great number of them are simply sat out there waiting for you to log on and watch, although that may not have been the intent with which they were set up.

Finding IP cameras with Google is surprisingly easy. Though the information the search engine provides on the cameras themselves is typically little more than an IP address and a camera name or model number, Google still provides those who know how to ask with extensive lists of IP cameras and Web-enabled surveillance systems throughout the world.

The secret is in the search itself. Though a standard Google search typically won’t find anything out of the ordinary, pairing advanced search tags (“intitle,” “inurl,” “intext,” and so on) with names of commonly-used cameras or fragments of URLs will provide direct links to watch live video from thousands of IP cameras.

Good harmless fun, right? Well, not necessarily:

Though accessing public cameras can be fun and is essentially harmless, it’s impossible to divorce the voyeuristic aspects of Googling cameras from the innocent ones. Because the majority of the cameras the engine finds are meant for surveillance, most of what’s out there is being used in security applications and is not meant to be seen by others.

This hit home quickly as I worked through my list of search strings and found myself watching daily events at businesses around the world. Though jewelry stores typically use the top tier of surveillance and security gear (and therefore secure it better), I was able to find several boutique stores around the world and watch as customers browsed display cases full of gold and silver. Although just looking at a store online couldn’t cause any harm, knowing when the store is occupied or empty could prove useful to a burglar looking for an easy target, especially if one was able to narrow down where the store was (not a huge stretch with the camera’s IP address to trace).

That there’s the main argument against the Transparent Society: “bad people could use it to do bad things!” Which is true as it stands… but if every camera was open-access, then Johnny Q Burglar could be easily tracked and traced on his way to and from his break-in job using the surveillance devices in the streets around his target.

OK, so that’s a massive over-simplification, but it’s an interesting twist on the sousveillance/participatory panopticon riff; personally, I think I’d rather have a world of open-access cameras (and accept the multilateral loss of a certain aspect of the thing we call privacy) than the alternative: like, I dunno, the sort of privatised surveillance state my own home country is becoming.

What about you lot: would you be willing to accept being surveilled by anyone anywhere in exchange for the ability to do the same yourself?


Paparazzi drones (coffee delivery upgrade optional)

Paul Raven @ 09-11-2010

The Wall Street Journal reports on the inevitable migration of UAV drone technology into non-military spheres of life:

Personal drones aren’t yet plying U.S. flyways. But an arms race is building among people looking to track celebrities, unfaithful lovers or even wildlife. Some organizations would like them for emergency operations in areas hit by natural disasters. Several efforts to develop personal drones are scheduled for completion in the next year.

“If the Israelis can use them to find terrorists, certainly a husband is going to be able to track a wife who goes out at 11 o’clock at night and follow her,” said New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder.

Drones now are associated with the unmanned Predator craft the Central Intelligence Agency uses to fire Hellfire missiles at militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But the essential technology is increasingly available beyond military circles, and spreading fast. An unmanned aircraft that can fly a predetermined route costs a few hundred bucks to build and can be operated by iPhone.

That’s pretty cheap and accessible; club together with a few neighbours, sketch out a rota, pay the kids pocket-money for manning a few shifts a week. Top marks to Randall “FuturePundit” Parker for this bit of close-range speculation:

The ability of surveillance drones to record high-res images could be combined with a wireless link to a criminal face matching computer server. So convicted rapists and muggers could be identified. Crowd sourcing becomes a real possibility. Many different personally owned drones could (along with cameras mounted in cars and outside of stores and houses) all pass info to servers that could then track the movement of known dangerous people (why they are out on the street is another subject). Also, after a crime is committed as soon as, say, a victim of rape or robbery reports the crime all recent drone feed logs in the vicinity could be scoured to identify possible suspects and start tracking them. Neighborhood watches could signal people to all send out their drones to do a massive sweep of the area.

I can imagine flying drones being sent off to a drug store to land on the roof to be loaded with a drug prescription or other light item. The energy costs would probably be lower than the energy costs of driving a car to the store. Wouldn’t work for a large grocery load. But would work for trips to get smaller items.

A bigger flying drone operated by, say, Starbucks or 7/11 could deliver coffee to a number of houses on a route. Or how about drones that deliver newspapers? A delivery truck could drive along with a flat bed where the drones lift off and deliver newspapers down side streets. Reduced labor costs, faster delivery.

Lots of potential apps there… each of them with their own potential shortcomings, exploit opportunities and failure consequences. (The intimidatory power of police drones will be somewhat negated when the rough neighbourhoods they’re intended to patrol can field their own jerry-built squadron of flying camera platforms; who will watch the watchmen, indeed. Won’t be long before some geek firebrand starts mounting Gauss weapons and scramblers on them, either, so plenty of potential for an escalating robot turf war between governors and governed; the street finds its own use for yadda yadda yadda.)

Definitely a potential plank in David Brin’s “Transparent Society” platform, too; the participatory panopticon becomes a lot more powerful when your cameras can move in more than one or two dimensions. And a perfect excuse to dig up one of Anders Sandberg’s classic near-future hazard signs from 2006:

Ubiquitous surveillance hazard sign