Christmas 2010

Mr Bin Laden, I Presume?

Philippe Berend

The world’s mightiest and most technologically advanced armed forces cannot find the world’s most wanted man. A combination of incredible electronic resources, massive on the ground armed forces, and a princely reward, have produced no result so far: Osama bin Laden remains at large. Whether he is even alive is not certain.

At the other end of the scale, we live in a world where pretty much nothing, be it crime, accident or indiscretion, can escape the eye of countless camera phones, webcams and surveillance cameras, and all of it can be posted almost instantly on the Net for the whole world to see.

So, how can it be that what we would like Bin Laden not to be able to hide, we want hidden for ourselves: our identity, our whereabouts, our relationships, our communications?

Secrecy and privacy

The answer lies in the difference between secrecy and privacy. Bin Laden needs secrecy, and we want privacy. Which can lead to the following conclusion, which is not that much of an oversimplification: secrecy = bad, privacy = good.

The problem, though, is that all the tools used for secrecy-busting are also great privacy busters. One man’s privacy is another man’s secrecy. And, while any « information » on the former ought to remain private, there is a rampant appetite, usually via the Internet, for the latter.

The Net is now the repository for just about everything about everyone, to the extent that Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt made his now-famous comment to the Wall Street Journal: Every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood, in order to disown youthful hi-jinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.” This, he now says, was a joke, before adding: «The serious goal is: just remember when you post something, the computers remember forever.»

What computers get to «remember forever» can be, as Eric Schmidt said «high-jinks», such as sex tapes made by a boyfriend and later released, or used as blackmail, when the one-time young girl has blossomed into a full-fledged star. But it can also be data that was collected totally unknown to the person concerned. Such as the student whose homosexual caper was caught by a webcam secretly placed there by his fellows, and then posted onto the Net. This ended tragically with the student committing suicide. Or it can be Mme Bettencourt, the French billionairess, whose conversations at her home were secretly taped for two years by her majordomo, and then passed on to the police for them to find out about her ownership of Swiss bank accounts and a private island in the Seychelles that had gone «unreported».

There are two ways in which this information, which should remain private and/​or secret, gets out. One is spying, as in the case of the covert camera or recorder, the other one is the huge number of leaks. Both are fueled by the public appetite, by the accessibility of data once it is in digital form, and by the security forces’ quest to reduce and punish crime, and to prevent terrorism.

The leaky society

In his seminal book, 1984, George Orwell forecast very aptly the end of any privacy. But the difference from today’s world is that this was, in his book, instituted officially by the centralised, totalitarian State, a.k.a. Big Brother. Today, it may not be the State watching you, but millions of prying camera lenses, because it is not, or not only, the State that wants to know everything about you. It is not a sinister secret police, such as the KGB, the Stasi or the Securitate, it is us. If we, as a society, did not rush to read up on the latest gossip or leak, to watch every incident millions of times on YouTube, then none of this would happen. It is like the production of drugs, when coca and opium-producing countries claim that, if there were no demand from consumers, there would be no production.

But, as is the case for drugs, there is ubiquitous demand, and this fuels ubiquitous leaks. These leaks may be grabbing information placed on a social network, or «somehow» obtaining transcripts of supposedly secret documents pertaining to police, judicial or medical cases.

Leaks can be the result of carelessness. Such as employees who get fired because they viciously criticise their employer on their Facebook pages, and are surprised that this information is then used against them: a French court found in the company’s favour and ruled that a Facebook page is a «public space» rather than a private one. There is no better example of this «leakiness» than this month’s world-famous site WikiLeaks. With it, leaks have progressed, so to speak, from a cottage industry to mass production.

Leaks may also be of a more commercially-minded nature. Such as the social network Facebook «letting» some of its partner applications leak member information to third parties. Obviously, though, leaks are not new to society, as was experienced by King Midas when he sought to unburden himself of his secret plight, and witnessed it being disseminated with the wind. But some are going to extraordinary lengths to get out-of-reach information. Such as «phishing» for it on the Internet, using fake Websites that trick users into giving up their passwords and bank access codes, or such as Google sending cars along our streets with the avowed purpose of collecting images for Google Street View, and not mentioning that, by the way, the cars are also picking up, identifying and storing all available information about wi-fi networks and their owners and contents, in the said streets. An illegal process, for which Google has yet to be held accountable, and for which it has yet to apologise.

The problem with those leaks is that, in order to take maximum advantage of the Information Society, one has to resort to using means of communications that are prone to such leaks. Which is why the one way to avoid them is not to use any tool of technology. No Internet, no cell phone.… This is what enabled Mafia Boss Bernardo Zio Provenzano to remain at large for so many years in Sicily: he only communicated with others via small bits of paper on which he typed very short notes. It is clear that Osama Bin Laden combines this with allegedly residing in one of the world’s remotest inhabited zones, Pakistan’s Northern Waziristan. Not exactly a price we are willing to pay in order to maintain our beloved privacy.

Communication without dissemination

Thus, for those of us who wish to avail ourselves of all the tools, possibilities and benefits of modern technology, our dream would be to have access to the people we want to reach, to manipulate data wholly without constraints, to share the latter freely with the former — but this should be inaccessible to others.

The interesting observation one can make is that this is a 100% reversal of all that the IT revolution has brought us. With it, we got heretofore unimaginable communication abilities, but also novel threats. Those threats all had to do with «penetrating» our computers, so we set up firewalls and anti-virus software to protect against intrusion, while learning the meaning of worms and Trojan horses. Now, the issue is not intrusion and infestation of our systems with toxic foreign data, it is, so to speak, «outrusion», meaning the loss of control of our data as it flows to a toxic foreign place. Which goes to show that, previously, our computer system was a sanctuary whch had to be kept thus by erecting walls and barriers around it. But now, as we willingly share data all around the world, care of social networks and search engines, we have shifted the battlegrounds from our computer system to data itself, and, first and foremost, to the key to the data, meaning whatever spells «access rights». For example, an account number and password give access to your bank data, and funds. Just as your Net surfing history gives access to your tastes and preferences, or your social network page to your friends and relationships.

So what can we do other than hope that we can put the genie back in the bottle, and that adequate policing will plug the leakage? There are multiple types of help available to those who wish to preserve privacy while maintaining full communications ability.

To protect us against intrusion, our computers are equipped with firewalls. Thus, to protect us against «outrusion», we need reverse firewalls. Just as phishing is devised to hunt for passwords and account numbers, a reverse firewall would also detect them, but with the intent of locking up their transmission. It is even possible that such data would at some stage become referenced as «untransmittable».

To help maintain the privacy of our phone conversations, the way forward is to separate our identity from the call. That is best achieved through an «honest broker» type of middleman. One calls the middleman, and the call is then forwarded but with caller identity withheld even to the cleverest of snooping devices. Such honest brokers already exist to maintain privacy, or even secrecy, in the case of «discreet» Swiss bank accounts. The bank witholds tax, but without divulging the identity to the account holder. In that manner, Switzerland continues to offer bank secrecy while putting an end to tax evasion, because due tax is actually paid, though anonymously. The originating country’s taxmen can no longer argue that they need names in order to collect taxes. They get taxes, but no names. Thus the communications and actions are separated from the identity of the person. Another example of honest brokers are Internet «anonymisers». They are websites one goes through that let one surf without the user IP address being identified.

Just as protecting bodies is the duty of bodyguards, will our data have dataguards, protecting them against misuse or inappropriate access?

The fact is, though, that unlimited amounts of «information» are required to feed the unlimited distribution channels through which our endless appetite for it is fed. The millions of camera phones, surveillance devices and webcams mirror the millions of daily tweets and facebook posts.

This all leads to an «information economy» where everything tends to be free. Collected for free in the street, posted for free, read for free on the Net. It used to be that pictures of some far-off drama were provided by daring hero-reporters. Now it is by bystanders who happened to be at the right place and the right time with some kind of capture device, and Websites make them accessible in raw form well before any conventional press or media can.

The economics of all this are simple: «information» collection, or harvesting, is free, but posting online generates pageviews and buzz, which turns into company value. FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube are now worth billions on the back of these «free posts». Google also collects information for free with its GoogleNews service, where it mines Press articles, and offers it for free, but collects billions from advertisers.

This value creation gives the public ever more means to connect, post and view.

The public interest or the public’s interest?

Just as the lines between what is secrecy and what is privacy are now blurred, the lines between what is legitimate information and what is «trash» are highly unclear.

Voyeurism and indiscretion are hardly a new phenomenon. The walls of the brothels in Pompei had holes for Roman peeping toms’. The difference, of course, is that this is no longer restricted to the individual. Thanks to technology, the world is now a global village, and what one person sees is now fodder for all our appetites. This is what reality TV programmes claim to show as the «naked truth». Nothing is too private, to intimate, too personal for their cameras.

This is also how our taste for such matters gets educated, and where yesteryear’s voyeurs become today’s viewers. And we are so accustomed to seeing «everything» laid out for us, that the very notion that there might be some matters that would be not for seeing becomes increasingly antiquated. One just has to compare the shock and horror that Abraham Zapruder’s amateur movie of Kennedy’s assassination inflicted in its time, and the fact that, when the film of Saddam Hussein’s hanging came out with the final moments edited, an unedited version was soon to be found and widely downloaded.

The last barrier to this viewing frenzy was the notion that «toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire»: not all should be said. For example, any mention of any national leader’s weakness, such as poor health, or an extramarital affair, was seen as potentially weakening the whole country, and best kept under wraps. Today, such a notion is simply laughable, against the financial interests of the media for whom nothing is as profitable as exposing what is not meant to be, against the notion that secrets are inherently bad, whereas transparency, «glasnost» in Russian, is inherently good, and against our frantic appetite.

In one word, the public interest has been replaced by the public’s interest …

So where does this all take us? To a world that leaves as much to the imagination as the cubicle windows from which prostitutes flaunt their bodies and invite customers? Not necessarily. While policing is, at this stage, a total non-starter, and while technical means only promise temporary relief while data thiefs sharpen their technique, there is still hope.

Because of the very ease with which everything can be shown, posted and viewed, the amount of «information» is booming well beyond anyone’s ability to keep track of it all, let alone enjoy it, and too much information cannot fail to kill information. It reminds me of the early days of socalled «sexual liberation». While there was a first phase of fascinating freedom and discovery, led by racy magazines and shops that sold previously unmentionable items, once the initial thrill had passed, life pretty much returned to what it was before. Centered around what is, and not around what is available.

Philippe Berend is a consultant, blogger and and writer on technology questions