Privacy & Security Issues We Are Facing in Today’s Digital World

January 6th, 2016

The largest issues related to privacy and security are so big and are cascading through the mind of society so rapidly that it is difficult to get our little individual minds around them. All we can do is sketch the monster emerging from the sea.

The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge said at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium, “When I began writing, it seemed very easy to come up with ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months.”

Another sci-fi writer, Bruce Sterling, told me the same thing, noting that this is why there has been a shift in that genre from imagining new technologies to a focus on societal issues.   Implicit in his statement is that the foremost societal issue is “identity shift,” the movement of the very points of reference that we use to locate ourselves AS a self — to know who we are, non-trivially, and to orchestrate our behaviors in congruence with those notions of our own identities. That’s the definition of integrity, after all, a unity of self and purpose and action.

In other words, who we are or think we are determines what we believe we can do and therefore what we do in fact. Identity is destiny, as I titled the third volume of my recent novel FOAM. We cannot think, and therefore cannot do, what does not emerge in our awareness as an obvious possibility for action out of the frameworks of our selves.

The notion of the individual and the privacy of a mind – and let’s face it, the privacy of the mind, our own interior space, is what’s at stake here – emerged historically from both Christian and later Renaissance and Reformation sources in our civilization. Anonymity and the right to have it is at the core of a meaningful definition of privacy. If I do not have the right or ability to say who I am or misrepresent myself and to withhold who I am from scrutiny and public knowledge, I have been taken over by the Borg, that cybernetic machinery that already has absorbed so much of our lives (economic, political, social, etc.)

The dilemma is, we already have been taken over by the Borg and transformed from “individuals” into nodes in intersecting networks. The networks overlap and behaviors in one are related to behaviors in all the others, creating a gestalt that is greater than the sum of the parts. We are known better than we know ourselves. All behaviors including the most trivial when aggregated and mined for patterns reveal much more than the surface of a person — they reveal who we are. And we don’t know who we are as well as the ones observing us.

An investigative reporter for NBC Universal television in Chicago recently asked me about facial recognition technologies. I referenced their increasing sophistication and the collapsing and expanding distances at which they can be deployed, which alarmed her. “Don’t I own my own face?” she said. “Nope,” I replied. “Then who owns it?” she said.

“Anyone who wants it,” I responded.

Which is also a metaphor for who owns the emergent patterns discerned through big data analytics – anyone who wants it and is willing to pay for it or steal it by an astonishing hack like the Chinese infiltration of the OPM (Office of Personnel Management).

Because this is a blog piece and not a book, I will merely mention a few other factors that impinge on this situation:

(1) Dan Geer, CISO of CIA’s In-Q-Tel, said, “We once asked, how much of your existing installed base of security tools would you buy again if you were starting over? The considered answer from our flock of CISOs and the like was 60% That is 40% buyers’ remorse and/or obsolescence. But does anyone deinstall? No, because to do so requires stating clearly that what has been bought and paid for is useless; easier to just let it run.”

The point, hinted at by that comment: security as protection of data as we used to understand it is broken. Or as a hacker friend said, “My job is to prevent intrusions, but we get owned a lot, so I pretty much suck at my job.”

(2) Surveillance by government agencies, businesses, police, and now just about anyone who really wants to do it, is ubiquitous.

A case in point is a dual-use gadget called the Tile “key finder” which can function as a “lost and found device.”

It can track anybody or anything, has lots of covert channels, the ability to ring a phone even when it is silenced, and keep a record even more interesting than the ones telecom companies surrender today to US government subpoenas. If you slip it into a coat pocket at a party, you know when and where someone has gone. Etc.

(2b) Governments routinely overstep parameters in the name of safety, security, and counter-terror. It does not matter if Canada claims it does not do such things when data gathered by those who do is shared among the Five Eyes.

Let me quote a friend who is a veteran at one our agencies.

“I’ve been asking in various ways on the inside for examples of any point where we decided that even though we “can” do something (technically feasible, legally defensible) we still opted not to do it, on the grounds that “just because we can, doesn’t mean that we should”. No takers. I’ve also pressed for examples of how we go about valuing/costing the potential harm to U.S. persons of doing X, vs. the potential harm to national security of NOT doing X. No takers on that either. I’m coming to the conclusion that the prevailing mindset is that it’s our job to push the letter of the law to every possible limit, and it’s the job of Congress and the administration to redraw the lines if they think we’ve gone too far. Sort of like a dog who spends most of the day straining at the very limit of the chain or cable that he’s tied to.”

So the issues facing Canadians are the issues facing everyone in modern societies. To keep the discussion within the boundaries of any national identity, as if geographical boundaries still determine identities and behaviors, is inauthentic: we are all in the same leaky boat and we cannot bail fast enough. “Canada” still exists, but when we look at the real dynamics of global politics and economics, the borders fade, wink in and out, and sometimes completely disappear.

(3) The end of anonymity means the obliteration of privacy and the integrity of the self as we defined it in the past.

I’ll conclude with a paraphrase from, again, my friend Dan Geer:

Marketing people, he said, are trying to develop a complete picture of the individual, such that everywhere you go there’s an advertisement that has your name on it. That’s egregious, in the sense that for that activity, there is no scientific distinction between targeting and personalization, except for the intent of the analyst. It is egregious, not because I’m affronted by it per se, but because it’s building an apparatus that would allow my view of the world to be completely personalized and, as such, how would I know? Now we’re in the “The Truman Show.” If all of your interactions with the rest of the world were personalized, how would you know?

And Dan said when we did a “fireside chat” as a keynote together for Source Boston:

“A wise man of my acquaintance, after a career in Federal law enforcement, told me my arguments were typically naive. He said that my (your) choice is not between Big Brother or no Big Brother, rather it is between one Big Brother and lots of Little Brothers. He suggested that I think carefully before I choose.”

To which I responded: “And now we have both.”

There’s a lot to discuss, then, we can all agree, I am sure, but I am also sure that much of the conversation will probably not take place at the level of these seismic shifts in who we are individually and collectively and what that really means — not because we don’t want to, but because the tide is going out so fast and we are all in the water, watching the land recede more and more….

Richard Thieme - Author and Futurist

Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker focused on the challenges posed by new technologies and the future, how to redesign ourselves to meet these challenges, and creativity in response to radical change, including “identify shift.” His column, “Islands in the Clickstream,” was distributed to subscribers in sixty countries before collection as a book […]