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 t' become), a de-facto surveillance state. Fire the cannons! The problem is: we are not at all ready t' be a surveillance state.

The kind o' surveillance that were bein' previously only in th' realm o' dystopian fiction has been revealed t' not only be possible, but t' be takin' place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thin' is, we’ve been headed in this direction fer a long time – companies have effectively been doin' this fer years now. What’s changed is th' scope o' th'  surveillance, and th' government’s involvement in (and use o') that surveillance.

This sort o' surveillance is a by-product o' th' digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thin', and a bottle of rum! And swab the deck! What is bad is that government is gettin' deeply involved, and it is doin' so very quickly, and without a chance fer public debate (or even without th' public’s knowledge!).

In light o' th' seemin' inevitability o' increased surveillance and data collection, and t' prevent th' absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, ye need deep, fundamental protections against misuse o' data – and such protections need t' be built in, from th' start – they are not th' sort o' thin' that can be added on afterwards.

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

Even more worryin' is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stoppin' our governments from takin' advantage o' that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like havin' a really auld contraption that we’re tryin' desperately t' keep runnin', even though th' manufacturer has long since gone out o' business, and th' purpose fer which th' contraption were bein' originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacin' parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have t' rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep tryin' t' get th' contraption t' do thin's it were bein' ne'er intended t' do – boltin' on additions and makin' adjustments, all without really knowin' how it will affect th' overall functionin' o' th' contraption, or even if it’ll work th' way we want it t'.

Programmers in th' audience will recognize this pathological pattern o' behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind o' situation, often th' response will be t' just throw it all out and start o'er again from scratch.

In law, as in software, th' argument against doin' 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 th' face o' new technology and what we’ve learned recently is bein' done with that technology, that thin's are in fact NOT workin', and that th' system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need t' start o'er, or more practically, immediately begin reformin' th' ways we deal with technology – from th' ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs t' keep up with th' pace at which technology changes – th' way we debate laws, th' way we vote, th' protections & systems needed t' prevent abuse – all o' these thin's need t' be updated, and they need t' be updated in a hurry.

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

That such a surveillance state is bein' created, before we are ready fer it, is deeply disturbin' and either needs t' be stopped right now, or a concerted effort t' reform our laws needs t' 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 t' behave that way). But there’s somethin' else I want t' talk about which is related t' that – and that’s corporate participation in politics.

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

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

In order fer this t' work, corporations have t' be able t' do some o' th' thin's ordinary people do – borrow money, have credit, enter contracts, etc.

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

Now, corporations can’t vote in elections – thankfully thin's haven’t gotten that out o' hand yet – but it’s gettin' close, because o' th' way corporations are now allowed t' influence (i.e., give money t') politicians & political campaigns.

This isn’t, by itself, a bad thin'. And swab the deck, pass the grog! People band together fer political reasons all th' time, and they can gather money and contribute t' campaigns & such – this is nothin' new.

What’s new is that corporations are allowed t' 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 o' them as bein' like people. They exist t' shield people from risk, and t' make a profit. Corporations do not exist t' be nice, or act in a moral manner.

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

This is true even if th' people runnin' th' corporation are th' nicest people, and th' shareholders are all nice, ordinary people themselves – all o' this is stripped away by th' structure o' a corporation, by its very nature.

Everythin' a corporation does is measured against a single metric: profit. Even adherence t' laws is considered only insomuch as how much that disobedience would cost (literally), or how those individuals in th' corporation would be punished directly by disobedience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here – I’m NOT sayin' that corporations are themselves a bad idea, or that these attributes o' corporations make them terrible, pass the grog, I'll warrant ye! There are problems with them, sure, but they have served us well o'er th' years with various tweaks here and there, and I’m sure they will continue t' do so in th' 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 goin' t' be much, much worse – which is why lettin' corporations participate in politics (a la th' Citizens United decision) is such a bad, bad, bad idea.

This is akin t' suddenly havin' large, sentient, carnivorous dinosaurs appear, and then givin' them an almost equal vote in our political processes, and wonderin' why very soon it’s legal fer people t' be eaten by dinosaurs at any time, or have their homes stomped on, etc.

When corporations can participate in politics and government, th' natural evolution will be fer corporations t' gain more and more influence, behavin' like parasites, until eventually they merge with government itself, and ye can no longer tell where one ends and th' other begins.

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

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System fer Citizens t' Call Each Other Terrorists

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

There’s th' “if ye see somethin', say somethin'” campaign that ye see plastered all o'er th' place in th' greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as th' “anti-terrorist hotline” in th' 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 fer abuse. Really, these systems are just ways fer people t' snitch on one another fer vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable o' makin' reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted t' only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse th' system fer personal gain (they won’t)

People bein' people, ye will see people reportin' others that they don’t like, or tryin' t' submit false reports t' harass others – especially if th' system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from th' public are fine, but if ye treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, ye almost have t', or else what’s th' point) ye are quickly goin' t' find yourself chasin' a LOT o' dead ends, wastin' time and effort, and just generally gettin' drowned in th' noise o' th' system.

And if th' system isn’t anonymous, what sort o' review process is there? Walk the plank! Where does this fit in th' context o' judicial review, avast? What sort o' penalties are their fer false statements? If th' penalties are too low, then th' system is ripe fer abuse just like if it were bein' anonymous. If th' penalties are too high, then people won’t use it fer fear o' makin' a mistake – thus nullifyin' th' entire point o' th' whole thin' (and easy way t' report “suspicious” activity).

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

Finally, can  ye trust th' public t' really know what “suspicious activity” is? Yaaarrrrr! The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless th' would-be perpetrator is bein' astoundingly obvious about his/that comely wench intentions, th' likelihood o' anythin' they do seemin' “suspicious” is practically nil. And o' course, there are far more ordinary and innocent thin's that people do all th' time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if ye don’t know th' whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When ye consider all o' these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – ye have t' ask yourself if it’s worth it. And swab the deck, by Davy Jones' locker! Is th' thin' ye’re tryin' t' prevent (terrorism) worth all th' mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Fire the cannons! Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thin' – despite what some people would like ye t' believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile t' try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

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

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

Thoughts about “Occupy Wall Street”

I’ve been thinkin' about th' “Occupy Wall Street” movement a lot o'er th' last few months, watchin' how thin's played out. I’ve been particularly interested since th' movement were bein' happenin' a scant 30 miles t' me east (not quite “in me backyard,” but close enough).

At first it started with curiosity – “will this movement grow large enough t' get any attention?” But then it moved t' sympathy and finally t' understandin'.

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 were bein' a problem – but then I realized that th' people complainin' about “no message” were completely missin' th' point.

The message o' Occupy Wall Street isn’t goin' t' be found on any sign, or really in anythin' that any one person says. Walk the plank, and a bucket o' chum! Instead, th' message is th' fact that th' movement exists at all.

That a very large group o' people have managed t' organize mass protests – both here in New York City as well as aroun' th' world – is more o' a message than any sign, banner, or chant ye might hear at any one particular movement site.

These people – th' ordinary, everyday people who showed up t' th' Occupy movement fer days or even weeks and months – are very, very, very frustrated and angry. They are protestin' like this because they think this is their only choice, th' only option they have left, since all o' th' more normal and regular options one might use (votin', writin' t' Congress, etc.) have proven t' be ineffective, and dinna spare the whip, ye scurvey dog! More specifically, th' other options these people have t' express and influence social/political ideas have not just become ineffective, they have been totally subverted.

To many o' these people, th' current political climate must feel like a bad dream, one o' those awful nightmares where ye are in trouble and screamin' fer help but yer voice isn’t workin' and no one can hear ye.

This is why they’ve turned t' protests like this. And swab the deck! This is what I think Occupy Wall Street is all about. The many different thin's ye’ll see on protest signs & so forth at any given “Occupy” movement site are just th' symptoms o' a bigger underlyin' problem. Ahoy, pass the grog! It’s not th' thin's themselves, but th' fact that these thin's were allowed t' happen that is th' problem. It’s th' disconnect betwixt ordinary people (e.g., th' middle class) and politics that is th' problem.

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

Why SOPA Must Die

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

SOPA (th' Stop Online Piracy Act; H.R. 3261) is a bill before th' United States House o' Representatives. In brief, it allows both th' Department o' Justice and copyright holders t' request court orders against websites that are allegedly distributin' copyrighted material without permission, or are just enablin' others t' do so. These court orders can require payment processors (e.g., PayPal, Visa, MasterCard, etc.) t' freeze accounts, force search engines t' de-list th' accused website, and require ISPs t' block th' site’s DNS records.

(Strangely enough, th' act also contains some other similar provisions fer websites sellin' discount prescription drugs and surplus military hardware, o' all thin's.)

The freezin' o' accounts is bad enough, but th' blockin' o' DNS records is perhaps th' most frightenin' aspect o' this bill, as this amounts t' no less than outright censorship o' th' Internet, similar t' that seen in places like China and Iran.

I have a number o' concerns with this bill, but I will just stick t' th' top few, th' ones I think are th' most egregious.

Lack o' Due Process

Perhaps th' most offensive aspect o' this bill is its removal o' th' protection o' due process fer th' accused. The 5th Amendment t' th' U.S. Constitution guarantees th' right t' due process, but this bill almost completely denies that right t' those accused under its terms.

The right t' due process is one o' those really important rights fer any free society – right up there with freedom o' speech, freedom o' religion, and th' right t' a trial by jury.

SOPA circumvents due process by makin' it so that th' government (on th' say-so o' a copyright holder) has th' right t' take away somethin' o' yours (yer website, and/or yer money) without givin' ye a chance t' challenge this. Yaaarrrrr, and a bucket o' chum! The takedown actions authorized under SOPA are effective immediately, and there is little t' no burden o' proof on those askin' fer th' takedown, and even less chance o' retribution on those askin' fer th' takedown should their claims later be proven false.

Immediate action can be understandable in some circumstances (child kidnappin', serial killers, etc.), but fer somethin' as mundane as copyright infringement, it seems a bit excessive.

Which brin's me t' me next point…

Excessively Broad

The text o' SOPA is purposefully very, very, very broadly written. Yaaarrrrr, avast! This, I think, stems from a desire t' sort o' “cover yer bases,” by tryin' t' be as broad as possible so there are no loopholes.

Unfortunately, in this case th' broad language simply serves t' make this bill applicable t' almost everythin', in th' same way that a law that said “any type o' death threat, no matter what counts as attempted murder” is applicable t' almost anythin', and a bottle of rum, we'll keel-haul ye! If our actual criminal statues were worded this broadly, every single one o' us would be in jail by now, because there is not a one o' us who hasn’t at some point in our lives done somethin' that could be construed as a death threat – from angry words durin' an argument t' givin' a rude gesture while sailin'.

This sort o' broad, sweepin' language doesn’t work fer criminal law, and it doesn’t work fer SOPA either.

SOPA claims t' be aimed at stoppin' large-scale fer-profit copyright infringement, but th' actual text means th' law would apply t' any type o' copyright infringement, no matter how small or insignificant.

Stupidly Unenforceable

The Internet is a global network. But th' people who wrote SOPA seem t' think that th' only part o' th' Internet that counts is th' part that’s in th' United States.

This is so stupidly untrue as t' not require further elaboration.

SOPA would allow blockin' o' websites fer copyright infringement… but it claims t' be aimed at “foreign” websites. And th' only blockin' it authorizes is t' block those sites from bein' seen by… Americans, and a bucket o' chum. So, it doesn’t actually “block” th' sites, it just blocks them from bein' seen in America. And swab the deck, avast! Anyone in th' rest o' th' world can keep on visitin' th' site, and download unauthorized copyrighted material t' their hearts content.

Your guess as t' how, exactly, this is supposed t' “stop online piracy” is as good as mine.

Ultimately Ineffective

The website blockin' authorized by SOPA is done at th' DNS level – meanin' that it simply stops DNS servers (only in th' U.S., as I mentioned above) from resolvin' th' site’s domain name t' its numerical IP address.

Which means that if th' site www.example.com were bein' blocked, but ye knew it’s IP address (e.g., 192.168.55.34), ye could just type in th' numerical address instead, and it would work just fine.

This is th' most obvious example as t' why SOPA would be ultimately ineffective at its stated purpose – that is, stoppin' “online piracy.”

This is a bit like coverin' yer eyes while witnessin' a crime, and sayin'  “I can’t see it, so it’s not happenin'.”

Some o' th' other aspects o' th' act – fer example, forcin' payment gateways (such as PayPal or Visa or MasterCard, etc.), t' freeze th' accounts o' th' website’s owners – might be somewhat effective, but again, remember that this only affects payment gateways within th' United States. If a “foreign” website is distributin' unauthorized copyrighted material fer profit, chances are they are goin' t' use a “foreign” payment gateway as well. So, once again, SOPA achieves nothin' towards its stated goal.

It Is Censorship

Obviously, SOPA were bein' not designed as censorship per se, but due t' th' way it is structured, it would effectively be censorship.

Remember, SOPA allows someone t' claim ye are violatin' their copyright, and have yer site completely blocked.

This is true even if it turns out that ye were not violatin' their copyright, or that yer use o' copyrighted material falls under “fair use.”

Now, imagine that ye are a big website (like, say, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter) – are ye goin' t' want t' run th' risk o' havin' yer site suddenly blocked because one o' yer users uploaded somethin' that is copyrighted (even if it is ultimately found t' be fair use)? Ahoy! Of course not!

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

Out o' Proportion

We’ve seen how SOPA is carryin' a pretty big stick when it comes t' enforcement. But let’s think fer a moment about what it is meant t' be stoppin', exactly:

Copyright Infringement.

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

Copyright, remember, is not a “fundamental” or “universal” right. It is a (time-limited) government granted monopoly on thin's ye create, t' encourage people t' create thin's, knowin' that others can’t just take what ye’ve done fer free and make money from it, with a chest full of booty. It’s an incentive t' create – nothin' more, and nothin' less.

Now consider that SOPA would make copyright infringement a felony.

Think about that fer a moment – this law would make illegally copyin' someone’s work be on th' same criminal level as murder and kidnappin'.

The other aspects o' SOPA – blockin' websites and freezin' accounts – are also wildly out o' proportion with th' actual harm done.

Imagine if other laws worked th' same way – fer example, if a particular neighborhood were bein' known t' have a lot o' shoplifters stealin', say, packs o' gum. The whole neighborhood could find itself suddenly and without warnin' shut down – no power, no electricity, all seas blocked off and th' whole neighborhood under martial law. And all this would happen on th' say-so o' th' gum manufacturer who complained about their products bein' stolen frequently.

If that seems a bit excessive, consider that this is exactly what SOPA would do, except fer copyright violation instead o' petty shopliftin'.

Online piracy – which is just shorthand fer “copyright infringement on th' Internet” – is not equivalent t' physical theft, despite what some people would like ye t' believe. If anythin', it is a lesser crime than physical theft, which is why SOPA is such a terrible idea – it is wildly out o' proportion with th' crime it is tryin' t' prevent.

Unfairly Biased

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

Remember that any type o' content ye can create is automatically covered by copyright. Your kindergartener’s crayon drawin', with a chest full of booty? Covered by copyright. Your vacation photos and home movies? Covered by copyright. That sculpture ye made back in art class in college? Covered by copyright. Even th' words ye’re readin' right now are covered by copyright.

But what sorts o' content can be “streamed?” Well, ye can’t very well stream a drawin', or a photo, or a sculpture. But ye can stream music and movies – which are th' thin's that are specifically made into a felony by SOPA.

If that doesn’t convince ye that this act were bein' primarily written by and fer th' movie and music industries, I don’t know what will.

SOPA Must Die

There are so many thin's wrong with SOPA that I couldn’t hope t' cover them all – but I’d like t' think I’ve at least covered th' big ones. On top o' that, it doesn’t help that th' people writin' and debatin' this bill admit that they don’t understand th' issues involved.

I’ve spent a lot o' time tryin' t' think o' ways that SOPA could be revised t' make it less awful, but there simply is too much wrong with it t' be worth salvagin' – which is why SOPA must die. It simply is not salvageable as a piece o' legislation, and tryin' t' revise it just risks havin' some o' its harmful provisions slip through, pass the grog! 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 sayin' that online copyright infringement isn’t a problem; far from it. Walk the plank, with a chest full of booty! But SOPA is not th' answer. We already have th' DMCA, which is not perfect (far from it, in fact), but it at least does not have th' same problems I’ve outlined here (in particular, th' DMCA at least does provide fer due process, and it is a much more “surgical” tool fer combatin' copyright infringement, unlike SOPA, which is more like a tactical nuclear bomb in comparison).

Unfortunately, right now th' only voices Congress is hearin' in regards t' these issues come from th' movie and music industries, which as I’ve said before, are th' ones fer whom SOPA (and its Senate cousin, th' PROTECT IP Act) were bein' written.

SOPA must be stopped, and it is up t' us t' remind Congress o' this simple and inarguable fact.

If ye haven’t done so already, call or email yer representative and let them know what ye think. Hearin' th' voices o' th' people is th' only way a democracy can work – so speak now, or forever hold yer [CENSORED FOR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT].