We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

Recent news has revealed what many already suspected – we have become a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual for a surveillance stateRecent news has revealed what many already suspected – that we are (or are about to become), a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

The kind of surveillance that was previously only in the realm of dystopian fiction has been revealed to not only be possible, but to be taking place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thing is, we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time – companies have effectively been doing this for years now. What’s changed is the scope of the  surveillance, and the government’s involvement in (and use of) that surveillance.

This sort of surveillance is a by-product of the digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thing. What is bad is that government is getting deeply involved, and it is doing so very quickly, and without a chance for public debate (or even without the public’s knowledge!).

In light of the seeming inevitability of increased surveillance and data collection, and to prevent the absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, you need deep, fundamental protections against misuse of data – and such protections need to be built in, from the start – they are not the sort of thing that can be added on afterwards.

Technology is progressing so rapidly that our laws simply cannot keep up – even the ways we create laws is still largely stuck in the last century, so that even if we try to adapt to new technology, by the time we’re done, it’s too late.

Even more worrying is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stopping our governments from taking advantage of that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like having a really old machine that we’re trying desperately to keep running, even though the manufacturer has long since gone out of business, and the purpose for which the machine was originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacing parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have to rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep trying to get the machine to do things it was never intended to do – bolting on additions and making adjustments, all without really knowing how it will affect the overall functioning of the machine, or even if it’ll work the way we want it to.

Programmers in the audience will recognize this pathological pattern of behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind of situation, often the response will be to just throw it all out and start over again from scratch.

In law, as in software, the argument against doing this is usually “why throw it away, since it still works” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” But I think it’s clear, especially in the face of new technology and what we’ve learned recently is being done with that technology, that things are in fact NOT working, and that the system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need to start over, or more practically, immediately begin reforming the ways we deal with technology – from the ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs to keep up with the pace at which technology changes – the way we debate laws, the way we vote, the protections & systems needed to prevent abuse – all of these things need to be updated, and they need to be updated in a hurry.

Until our laws are fundamentally overhauled to provide the same kind of deeply embedded protections in this digital age that we previously enjoyed before computers existed, we simply are not ready to be a surveillance state.

That such a surveillance state is being created, before we are ready for it, is deeply disturbing and either needs to be stopped right now, or a concerted effort to reform our laws needs to happen, yesterday.

Why Corporate Participation in Politics is Bad, Bad, Bad

I’ve talked before about why corporations are evil (or rather, why they tend to behave that way). But there’s something else I want to talk about which is related to that – and that’s corporate participation in politics.

Let’s back up a bit first though and go over what exactly is a corporation?

A corporation is a sort of legal fiction, an “entity” that exists only on paper, created and sustained only by the laws that allow its existence, and designed to shield people from loss and liability so as to give them a way to do things they wouldn’t be able to (or wouldn’t want to risk doing) otherwise.

In order for this to work, corporations have to be able to do some of the things ordinary people do – borrow money, have credit, enter contracts, etc.

But lately, corporations have started to be able to do things that aren’t strictly necessary for corporations to exist – specifically, they can now participate in politics in ways that they weren’t allowed to before.

Now, corporations can’t vote in elections – thankfully things haven’t gotten that out of hand yet – but it’s getting close, because of the way corporations are now allowed to influence (i.e., give money to) politicians & political campaigns.

This isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. People band together for political reasons all the time, and they can gather money and contribute to campaigns & such – this is nothing new.

What’s new is that corporations are allowed to do this, on their own behalf.

The problem with this is that corporations are inherently immoral.

Remember – corporations are not people, even though we sometimes think of them as being like people. They exist to shield people from risk, and to make a profit. Corporations do not exist to be nice, or act in a moral manner.

Let me say that again: corporations do NOT exist to be moral, or be nice, or obey laws. While all (or some) of those things may be done by some corporations (especially when they are small), they are NOT the purpose of the corporation, and they can all be subverted to greater or lesser degrees in pursuit of the primary purpose, which is PROFIT.

This is true even if the people running the corporation are the nicest people, and the shareholders are all nice, ordinary people themselves – all of this is stripped away by the structure of a corporation, by its very nature.

Everything a corporation does is measured against a single metric: profit. Even adherence to laws is considered only insomuch as how much that disobedience would cost (literally), or how those individuals in the corporation would be punished directly by disobedience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m NOT saying that corporations are themselves a bad idea, or that these attributes of corporations make them terrible. There are problems with them, sure, but they have served us well over the years with various tweaks here and there, and I’m sure they will continue to do so in the future.

The problem here can be summed up like this:

  1. Corporations are inherently immoral.
  2. Corporations can now participate directly in politics.
  3. Because corporations are inherently immoral, their influence in politics will also be immoral.

Politics is a nasty enough business on its own, but now it is going to be much, much worse – which is why letting corporations participate in politics (a la the Citizens United decision) is such a bad, bad, bad idea.

This is akin to suddenly having large, sentient, carnivorous dinosaurs appear, and then giving them an almost equal vote in our political processes, and wondering why very soon it’s legal for people to be eaten by dinosaurs at any time, or have their homes stomped on, etc.

When corporations can participate in politics and government, the natural evolution will be for corporations to gain more and more influence, behaving like parasites, until eventually they merge with government itself, and you can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.

Corporate participation in politics is, frankly, wrong, and it runs contrary to all the ideas of democracy that underpin so much of our society. If we are to continue to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people – and not a government “for the corporations” – then corporate participation in politics must not be allowed.

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.

There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.

uk anti-terrorist hotline billboardThe problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)

People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.

And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).

Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).

Finally, can  you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.

I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.

How Copyright Has Gone Copywrong

Yep, that’s right – I’m talking about copyright again. Specifically, I’m following up on my previous post, Copyright & Fan Creations.

In that post, I talked about how all fan art is copyright infringement – whether you sell it or not is irrelevant; as soon as you draw it, it infringes on copyright. Now it’s just a matter of how much damages you are liable for.

In ye olden times, copyright infringement was strictly a civil matter, up to the copyright holder to decide to sue – just like it is up to individuals in, say, a contract dispute to decide whether or not to sue. The state doesn’t typically get involved in civil matters (that’s why it’s called civil).

But now it does. Copyright infringement, though still nominally a civil matter, is being treated, prosecuted, and sentenced like a felony – right up there with robbing a bank or murder.

This is insane.

On top of that, copyright is extremely broad, and the only “exceptions” to the law (fair use) are actually just defenses, not actual exceptions – meaning they only come into play once you end up in court (and they are by no means guaranteed).

This is so heavily skewed that it’s a miracle anyone can produce anything new anymore without someone making a claim that it infringes (often just by resembling) another intellectual “property.” (In point of fact, this actually does happen quite a lot.)

This partly explains the resurgence of old, nostalgia-driven media lately – old comics made and re-made into movies, old franchises re-made, or even board games made into movies – because the copyright on these things are already well established, and companies don’t have to go through the potential trouble of investing in new properties, only to find out at the end that someone else has a copyright on something similar.

Keep in mind that I make my living from copyright & intellectual propery – so I’m not advocating for the total abolishing of copyright. What I’m calling for is some restraint, some sanity in copyright law.

For something that was intended to foster and encourage creative works & reward creators for doing so, it is now much too heavily skewed towards protecting existing creations.

Eventually, this is going to come back around and start biting the hands of those who advocated for stronger copyright laws.

Copyright is painted with such a broad brush, and it lasts for such a long time, that it is now having the opposite effect than what was intended – or what is necessary.

Creativity still happens, of course, but the rewards & incentives copyright was intended to give simply no longer exist (or are outweighed by the risks of infringement). Copyright is stuck 100 years ago, even while copyright enforcement is using cutting edge technology.

This is terrible, and it needs to change.

Copyright is important, don’t get me wrong, but we need to stop treating it as though it is some fundamental, inalienable right which must be protected at all costs. Copyright law needs to strike a reasonable balance between protection and re-use, one that encourages and rewards creation, without discouraging new creation for fear of potential infringement. And perhaps most importantly, it needs to set some clear guidelines on what is and is not permissible vis-a-vi re-use and fair use, instead of just saying “well, we’ll know it when we see it… in court.”

These sorts of changes will go a long way towards bringing copyright into the 21st century, helping it make sense again, and put a stop to the utter madness that is the state of copyright law and enforcement today.

Keith’s Anime Reviews: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Make a contract with me as we take a look at a relatively new anime called “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” and see what all the fuss is about.

Madoka Magica

“Anything is possible if you make a contract with me!”

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (or just “Madoka Magica,” for short) is a very surprisingly deep, somewhat dark, and very thought-provoking series – especially given that at first glance it looks like “just another magical girl anime.”

For those not familiar, the idea of “magical girls” is sort of a staple in anime – it’s a bit of a twist on the more traditional “superhero” story you see more often in western media. The basic idea is similar: person gains some sort of super-power and secret identity and has to fight bad guys/evil while trying to balance a normal life.

The basic premise of a magical girl story has the potential for a lot of interesting development, character growth, and so on – although it can also be used as just an excuse to have characters dress up in cute costumes.

Madoka Magica is… not like that. At all.

This is a series that is very hard to describe without spoiling things – A LOT – but I’ll do my best, because it really is worth watching without knowing the spoilers.

The basic premise here is that our main character, Madoka (and her friend, Sayaka) are suddenly asked if they want to become magical girls by the weirdly cute (but also somewhat creepy) talking cat-like creature Kyubey. In exchange, he will grant them any one wish they desire.

Getting any one wish you want granted in exchange for magic powers, a secret identity, and the duty to battle evil sounds like a not-too-bad trade, but this series really explores the depths of this seemingly inconsequential plot device.

Consider: should you be “selfish” and make the wish for yourself only, or use it to grant someone else’s desire – someone you care about? What if your wish turns out to not be what you want – or what the person you care about wanted? The price of your wish may turn out to be more than you can bear.

The characters in this series are very well developed – each one has a very interesting back story and motivation (which for the most part is filled in slowly with hints and suggestions, rather than being spoon fed to you), and they all grow and change over the course of the series.

This is an extraordinarily well put together and well thought out series, with lots of attention to detail and subtlety, which benefits from a second (or third) viewing. You will absolutely notice things the second time through that you didn’t notice before, and you’ll go “ah-ha!” or “oh, so that’s what that means!”

So if you’re a bit tired of the usual fare in this genre of anime, or if you’d just like to see something that really twists your mind (and your heart!) and explores some very deep concepts in a new and interesting way, I’d highly recommend that you give Madoka Magica a try.