We’re Not 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.

Thoughts about “Occupy Wall Street”

I’ve been thinking about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement a lot over the last few months, watching how things played out. I’ve been particularly interested since the movement was happening a scant 30 miles to my east (not quite “in my backyard,” but close enough).

At first it started with curiosity – “will this movement grow large enough to get any attention?” But then it moved to sympathy and finally to understanding.

I watched as TV and Internet news outlets complained that Occupy Wall Street had no “clear message” or “demands,” and at first I wondered if this really was a problem – but then I realized that the people complaining about “no message” were completely missing the point.

The message of Occupy Wall Street isn’t going to be found on any sign, or really in anything that any one person says. Instead, the message is the fact that the movement exists at all.

That a very large group of people have managed to organize mass protests – both here in New York City as well as around the world – is more of a message than any sign, banner, or chant you might hear at any one particular movement site.

These people – the ordinary, everyday people who showed up to the Occupy movement for days or even weeks and months – are very, very, very frustrated and angry. They are protesting like this because they think this is their only choice, the only option they have left, since all of the more normal and regular options one might use (voting, writing to Congress, etc.) have proven to be ineffective. More specifically, the other options these people have to express and influence social/political ideas have not just become ineffective, they have been totally subverted.

To many of these people, the current political climate must feel like a bad dream, one of those awful nightmares where you are in trouble and screaming for help but your voice isn’t working and no one can hear you.

This is why they’ve turned to protests like this. This is what I think Occupy Wall Street is all about. The many different things you’ll see on protest signs & so forth at any given “Occupy” movement site are just the symptoms of a bigger underlying problem. It’s not the things themselves, but the fact that these things were allowed to happen that is the problem. It’s the disconnect between ordinary people (e.g., the middle class) and politics that is the problem.

So if you’re a politician looking for some “action items” to take away from the Occupy Wall Street protests, let me offer this: listen to your constituents – I mean really listen – and remember that laws need to not just be fair, they need to feel fair – because when they aren’t, people really get mad.

Why SOPA Must Die

[It's taken me a while to get my thoughts in order regarding this issue, especially since so many others have already spoken about it more eloquently than I ever could. But this is such an important topic, and it has been weighing on my mind so heavily as of late, that I just couldn't wait any longer - I had to put my thoughts down in words.]

SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act; H.R. 3261) is a bill before the United States House of Representatives. In brief, it allows both the Department of Justice and copyright holders to request court orders against websites that are allegedly distributing copyrighted material without permission, or are just enabling others to do so. These court orders can require payment processors (e.g., PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, etc.) to freeze accounts, force search engines to de-list the accused website, and require ISPs to block the site’s DNS records.

(Strangely enough, the act also contains some other similar provisions for websites selling discount prescription drugs and surplus military hardware, of all things.)

The freezing of accounts is bad enough, but the blocking of DNS records is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this bill, as this amounts to no less than outright censorship of the Internet, similar to that seen in places like China and Iran.

I have a number of concerns with this bill, but I will just stick to the top few, the ones I think are the most egregious.

Lack of Due Process

Perhaps the most offensive aspect of this bill is its removal of the protection of due process for the accused. The 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to due process, but this bill almost completely denies that right to those accused under its terms.

The right to due process is one of those really important rights for any free society – right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to a trial by jury.

SOPA circumvents due process by making it so that the government (on the say-so of a copyright holder) has the right to take away something of yours (your website, and/or your money) without giving you a chance to challenge this. The takedown actions authorized under SOPA are effective immediately, and there is little to no burden of proof on those asking for the takedown, and even less chance of retribution on those asking for the takedown should their claims later be proven false.

Immediate action can be understandable in some circumstances (child kidnapping, serial killers, etc.), but for something as mundane as copyright infringement, it seems a bit excessive.

Which brings me to my next point…

Excessively Broad

The text of SOPA is purposefully very, very, very broadly written. This, I think, stems from a desire to sort of “cover your bases,” by trying to be as broad as possible so there are no loopholes.

Unfortunately, in this case the broad language simply serves to make this bill applicable to almost everything, in the same way that a law that said “any type of death threat, no matter what counts as attempted murder” is applicable to almost anything. If our actual criminal statues were worded this broadly, every single one of us would be in jail by now, because there is not a one of us who hasn’t at some point in our lives done something that could be construed as a death threat – from angry words during an argument to giving a rude gesture while driving.

This sort of broad, sweeping language doesn’t work for criminal law, and it doesn’t work for SOPA either.

SOPA claims to be aimed at stopping large-scale for-profit copyright infringement, but the actual text means the law would apply to any type of copyright infringement, no matter how small or insignificant.

Stupidly Unenforceable

The Internet is a global network. But the people who wrote SOPA seem to think that the only part of the Internet that counts is the part that’s in the United States.

This is so stupidly untrue as to not require further elaboration.

SOPA would allow blocking of websites for copyright infringement… but it claims to be aimed at “foreign” websites. And the only blocking it authorizes is to block those sites from being seen by… Americans. So, it doesn’t actually “block” the sites, it just blocks them from being seen in America. Anyone in the rest of the world can keep on visiting the site, and download unauthorized copyrighted material to their hearts content.

Your guess as to how, exactly, this is supposed to “stop online piracy” is as good as mine.

Ultimately Ineffective

The website blocking authorized by SOPA is done at the DNS level – meaning that it simply stops DNS servers (only in the U.S., as I mentioned above) from resolving the site’s domain name to its numerical IP address.

Which means that if the site www.example.com was blocked, but you knew it’s IP address (e.g.,, you could just type in the numerical address instead, and it would work just fine.

This is the most obvious example as to why SOPA would be ultimately ineffective at its stated purpose – that is, stopping “online piracy.”

This is a bit like covering your eyes while witnessing a crime, and saying  “I can’t see it, so it’s not happening.”

Some of the other aspects of the act – for example, forcing payment gateways (such as PayPal or Visa or MasterCard, etc.), to freeze the accounts of the website’s owners – might be somewhat effective, but again, remember that this only affects payment gateways within the United States. If a “foreign” website is distributing unauthorized copyrighted material for profit, chances are they are going to use a “foreign” payment gateway as well. So, once again, SOPA achieves nothing towards its stated goal.

It Is Censorship

Obviously, SOPA was not designed as censorship per se, but due to the way it is structured, it would effectively be censorship.

Remember, SOPA allows someone to claim you are violating their copyright, and have your site completely blocked.

This is true even if it turns out that you were not violating their copyright, or that your use of copyrighted material falls under “fair use.”

Now, imagine that you are a big website (like, say, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter) – are you going to want to run the risk of having your site suddenly blocked because one of your users uploaded something that is copyrighted (even if it is ultimately found to be fair use)? Of course not!

Even though sites like Facebook and YouTube are probably big enough to get unblocked fairly quickly, the simple threat of being blocked at a moments notice is enough to force them – out of simple self-preservation – to severely censor their users. They just can’t take the risk – the potential harm to them (having their site blocked) is too great to even risk letting users upload anything that might, possibly, maybe, be considered copyright infringement.

Out of Proportion

We’ve seen how SOPA is carrying a pretty big stick when it comes to enforcement. But let’s think for a moment about what it is meant to be stopping, exactly:

Copyright Infringement.

Not “piracy,” not “theft of intellectual property,” but simple infringement of copyright.

Copyright, remember, is not a “fundamental” or “universal” right. It is a (time-limited) government granted monopoly on things you create, to encourage people to create things, knowing that others can’t just take what you’ve done for free and make money from it. It’s an incentive to create – nothing more, and nothing less.

Now consider that SOPA would make copyright infringement a felony.

Think about that for a moment – this law would make illegally copying someone’s work be on the same criminal level as murder and kidnapping.

The other aspects of SOPA – blocking websites and freezing accounts – are also wildly out of proportion with the actual harm done.

Imagine if other laws worked the same way – for example, if a particular neighborhood was known to have a lot of shoplifters stealing, say, packs of gum. The whole neighborhood could find itself suddenly and without warning shut down – no power, no electricity, all roads blocked off and the whole neighborhood under martial law. And all this would happen on the say-so of the gum manufacturer who complained about their products being stolen frequently.

If that seems a bit excessive, consider that this is exactly what SOPA would do, except for copyright violation instead of petty shoplifting.

Online piracy – which is just shorthand for “copyright infringement on the Internet” – is not equivalent to physical theft, despite what some people would like you to believe. If anything, it is a lesser crime than physical theft, which is why SOPA is such a terrible idea – it is wildly out of proportion with the crime it is trying to prevent.

Unfairly Biased

If you have any doubt that the movie and music industries are the major reason why this bill exists, consider this: there is a clause in the act which specifically makes streaming copyrighted content a felony.

Remember that any type of content you can create is automatically covered by copyright. Your kindergartener’s crayon drawing? Covered by copyright. Your vacation photos and home movies? Covered by copyright. That sculpture you made back in art class in college? Covered by copyright. Even the words you’re reading right now are covered by copyright.

But what sorts of content can be “streamed?” Well, you can’t very well stream a drawing, or a photo, or a sculpture. But you can stream music and movies – which are the things that are specifically made into a felony by SOPA.

If that doesn’t convince you that this act was primarily written by and for the movie and music industries, I don’t know what will.

SOPA Must Die

There are so many things wrong with SOPA that I couldn’t hope to cover them all – but I’d like to think I’ve at least covered the big ones. On top of that, it doesn’t help that the people writing and debating this bill admit that they don’t understand the issues involved.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think of ways that SOPA could be revised to make it less awful, but there simply is too much wrong with it to be worth salvaging – which is why SOPA must die. It simply is not salvageable as a piece of legislation, and trying to revise it just risks having some of its harmful provisions slip through. It should just be thrown away, and some other more specific and less broad legislation could be drafted instead.

Now, let’s be clear – I’m not saying that online copyright infringement isn’t a problem; far from it. But SOPA is not the answer. We already have the DMCA, which is not perfect (far from it, in fact), but it at least does not have the same problems I’ve outlined here (in particular, the DMCA at least does provide for due process, and it is a much more “surgical” tool for combating copyright infringement, unlike SOPA, which is more like a tactical nuclear bomb in comparison).

Unfortunately, right now the only voices Congress is hearing in regards to these issues come from the movie and music industries, which as I’ve said before, are the ones for whom SOPA (and its Senate cousin, the PROTECT IP Act) was written.

SOPA must be stopped, and it is up to us to remind Congress of this simple and inarguable fact.

If you haven’t done so already, call or email your representative and let them know what you think. Hearing the voices of the people is the only way a democracy can work – so speak now, or forever hold your [CENSORED FOR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT].