The Future of Privacy
December 8, 2016 10:53 AM   Subscribe

 
One of the most interesting and eye opening aspects of reading the Imperial Radch series was the complete lack of privacy and how the characters thought nothing of it. Indeed, it was subtly pitched as an advantage for people, since it was A.I.'s who saw everything and they'd use that to help people get along or get through their day.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:58 AM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


The conjunction of this and the immediate previous comment, oh gosh.
posted by sammyo at 10:59 AM on December 8, 2016


Gibson is absolutely wrong though. History has never been transparent.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:06 AM on December 8, 2016 [7 favorites]


But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets.

As though history is a perfect record assembled from the panopticon.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 11:08 AM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


People in the future won't have to worry about privacy because nobody will RTFA.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:13 AM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]


"Gibson is absolutely wrong though. History has never been transparent."

I don't think that's what he's saying. He's saying that history itself is composed of what is revealed. So transparency becomes long term history since it's what's made public.
posted by I-baLL at 11:17 AM on December 8, 2016 [10 favorites]


He's saying that history itself is composed of what is revealed.

He's saying that history itself is composed of what is allowed to be revealed (by the victors.)

He's saying that history itself is composed of what is filtered through the bias of the recorder.

He's saying that history itself is composed of what is pieced together from scraps left to us and interpreted through the lens of a different era.

I suppose I could go on, but there's a few fixes for 'uns.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:24 AM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


I re-read it, and he's assuming things that are categorically wrong. These are common mistakes from technologists, and I think worth pointing out. The west needs to relearn the value of the humanities.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets. So we are quite merciless, as historians, when it comes to the secrets of the past, the secrets of the dead. We come to know them with an intimacy impossible in their day. It would be unthinkable for us to turn away from their secrets, to allow the Iceman his privacy or to not scan beneath the bitumen to recover an Egyptian priestess’s tattoos.

What he's roughly saying is something more like we allow history no secrets we can uncover. Our advances make uncovering secrets that even in the time the people weren't aware of possible. We give the dead no rights to secrecy, and we ourselves will someday be dead and looked over by those yet more advanced and secrets we may not even know we keep will be revealed for all to see.

He is setting this idea of historical examination against state and personal secrecy in the moment, where the desire for control is gone and the fears and feelings of the moment are past. It isn't an attempt to answer the current dilemma of secrecy, but to set in a different perspective as a way to ponder the question further. Our knowledge comes from probing the secrets of the past, yet we seek to keep knowledge of ourselves from all but ourselves. There is something of a paradox in what we feel we want or need to know and what we want known, we are a part of history, yet wish to be apart from it as well.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:36 AM on December 8, 2016 [15 favorites]


He's saying that history itself is composed of ...

I think Gibson would agree with most of those statements, but they still miss the point of what he's saying.

He's saying that encryption is intention, and that history, or better, our ancestors, don't care about our intentions.

If it's possible to share, and that's the central part of his inquiry, that our intentions for our own privacy now, in encryption or whatever, won't matter after we're gone. Our drafts probably won't be burned in the fire. No one will slash the paintings left in our studios.

Virgil is said to have wanted the Aeneid burned and so forever lost. Is encryption a guarantee of that forever, or the faithless Emperor that preserved the unfinished poem? Should it be? Can it be? Gibson doesn't answer those questions, but that's what he's asking.
posted by bonehead at 11:54 AM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


Should I be able to encrypt documents in such a way that the F.B.I. can’t decrypt them? If I can, terrorists can as well.

Is two key encryption mathematically impossible? That is, strong, hard PKI but with two equally strong private keys? Then for a certain class of private messages one key could be held in escrow, only to be accessed through well defined court action. (or long enough term, historian access)

Big prime and elliptic math are non-trivial (as in really really tough math) so validating a new algorithm is whew, not to mention implementation and validating the code and all, but it seems like given the right legislative protections and constraints it would resolve a significant number of issues on both sides of the question.
posted by sammyo at 12:09 PM on December 8, 2016


We give the dead no rights to secrecy

Perhaps the state may never die.

The dead, literally, have no right to privacy because it is assumed that, being dead, they can no longer suffer harm. States die; empires crumble. But they can be awful long in the crumbling. You can make a solid argument that Rome lasted 2000 years, in one way or another. (That a tendril of it lasts still: Julius Caesar and Pope Francis are both Pontifex Maxiumus).

Maybe someday in some future encryption will be broken. But government may have considerable power to delay that reckoning...
posted by Diablevert at 12:13 PM on December 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


People in this thread are wildly misinterpreting what Gibson is saying with regard to history. They're somehow taking "But history, the long term, is transparency; it is the absence of secrets" to mean "history is knowing the past completely perfectly and completely accurately", which makes no sense in the context of an article about the nature of privacy and the effects of time.

Especially since he makes clear exactly what he means just two sentences down: "It would be unthinkable for us to turn away from their secrets, to allow the Iceman his privacy or to not scan beneath the bitumen to recover an Egyptian priestess’s tattoos." The historians of the future will care as little for our current privacy concerns and efforts as we do for people in our past.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:21 PM on December 8, 2016 [10 favorites]


The historians of the future will care as little for our current privacy concerns and efforts as we do for people in our past.

Even that isn't true. For example, American historians spent a century and a half actively concealing the truth about Thomas Jefferson.

Historians have agendae, just like anyone else.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


I re-read it, and he's assuming things that are categorically wrong. These are common mistakes from technologists, and I think worth pointing out. The west needs to relearn the value of the humanities.

I don't put much stock in the Two Cultures, but Gibson isn't a technologist.
posted by clew at 12:35 PM on December 8, 2016 [8 favorites]




To summarize the essay in three sentences: Isn't it interesting that we want to keep secrets but don't want our governments to keep secrets? Exposed secrets in history are an important part of history, will that be different in the future? If modern encryption is insecure in the long term, that's an interesting thing to think about.

Which are all fair points. But they're all also completely obvious and not worth either writing or reading. And certainly not worth wading through intentional obfuscation and pointless asides.

"If you have nothing to hide, what do you really have, aside from the panoptic attention of a state, which itself keeps secrets?" is the sort of thing you say if you want the people at a cocktail party to think you're smart. Especially if you have no respect for them or don't think they're paying attention.
posted by eotvos at 12:38 PM on December 8, 2016


I read the essay as an attempt to find whether the intersection of my privacy and your curiosity is arbitrary. As it turns out, the answer seems to be "it depends." It seems trivial enough, except for the part about how we could all drown when the tide turns.

Take a deep breath.
posted by mule98J at 12:43 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think the concepts he's working with ("privacy", "history") are too abstract to be useful, but he's pretty up-front about having many questions and no answers.

Concrete examples that might be worth considering are detailed census records or government secrets, which are supposed to be opened to the public after a set period of time. That's one way we balance these competing concerns already. The total surveillance infrastructure that now exists, and the increasing abandonment of state transparency mechanisms even in liberal democracies, mean that the balance is shifting in ways we don't yet fully understand.

It's also interesting that we produce vastly more documentary evidence about ourselves than any previous generation, and yet almost none of it will be preserved. That seems to me like a much bigger factor than something like encryption. The people responsible for building the archives that future historians will rely on are thinking hard about this stuff (e.g.), and ethical concerns are a major point of discussion -- under what circumstances, for example, is it okay to capture someone's personal social media feed and put it in an online archive?
posted by Gerald Bostock at 12:47 PM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


The Blue is cranky this afternoon. Remember that most Americans, even most NYT readers, probably do not marinate in this stuff (historiography, critical theory, technology X culture) the way that the MetaFilter audience does, ruminants that we are.
posted by radicalawyer at 1:06 PM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


Even that isn't true. For example, American historians spent a century and a half actively concealing the truth about Thomas Jefferson.

Historians have agendae, just like anyone else.

NoxAeternum

Again, you're talking about different issues. That wasn't done out of concern for Jefferson's privacy, as evidenced by the publication for centuries of all sorts of private and personal material of Jefferson's, but for reasons tied up in race and the mythology around Jefferson.

No one, Gibson included, is arguing against your point that historians have their own agendas, but that's a separate topic from the issue of privacy. History is manipulated and suppressed for all sorts of reasons, but the privacy rights or intentions of those in the past are very rarely among them.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:08 PM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


There is a pretty clear answer here :

Institutions wielding power need near complete transparency imposed upon them because otherwise they abuse their secrecy powers in absolutely evil ways. Individuals need whatever privacy can be enforced by cryptography because otherwise powerful institutions will abuse them, including obstructing transparency.

At the same time, individuals should retain the plaintext of their encrypted correspondences and pass these on to their decedents. If those correspondences seem historical, then those decedents should be encouraged to make whatever redactions they desire and turn the remainder over to historians.

In particular, there should not be any assurances that individuals with whom you correspond will not make those correspondences public. There should be no DRM to protect privacy just like there should be no DRM to protect copyright.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:21 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's certainly very rare for the living to protect the privacy of the dead, but it does happen occasionally.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:30 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


He's saying that history itself is composed of what is revealed.

He's saying that history itself is composed of what is allowed to be revealed (by the victors.)


While he doesn't say so explicitly, I think the important observation is that we value privacy differently when there's enough historical distance. Keeping your child's mental illness or drug abuse private is understandable to most people, but discussing the fact, today, that Dickens was probably bipolar and Freud probably a cocaine addict doesn't strike anyone as a privacy issue in the slightest.

So the importance we place on personal privacy seems to relate very strongly to that person being, you know, alive.

And states, as he says in the article, have very very long lives, which lends an imbalance to how we value personal vs state secrets.

This isn't earth-shaking, but it is a nifty new angle on things, at least to me.
posted by rokusan at 1:36 PM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


I look forward to (the successor to/purchaser of) Google-NSA profiting mightily from my private correspondence after my demise.
posted by comealongpole at 1:49 PM on December 8, 2016


I don't think any of that's absolute. Individuals and their secrets can wield power and cause harm. States may sometimes need secrecy --- one cannot conduct a negotiation in full transparency, and it is often necessary for any kind of group to discuss it options in a given situation and come to a decision amongst itself before presenting that decision to others.

What counts as "historical" is often not at all obvious. What historians are interested in studying changes. One person's history may not seem terribly interesting in their own time, yet turn out to be hugely important later. One half of a correspondance may die while the other lives --- is that history yet, and does whoever happens to have access to the letters get to make that call?

But even that framing is really a 20th century one, and seems to neglect some of the things Gibson's hinting at. Future historians (and spies) won't just be able to read someone's letters, or diaries. Someone with access to the metadata from my phone could probably trace my every step for the past five years --- everywhere I went, just about everyone I talked to, everything I read, wrote, wanked off to, bought, liked, loathed, chuckled at or saw fit to slap an emoji on. In the future, historians will wield our own data against our reputations.
posted by Diablevert at 1:52 PM on December 8, 2016 [4 favorites]


And judge us by ethics we don't understand.
posted by bonehead at 2:01 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


In the chapels of the vast underground nuclear bunkers in which they dwell, the people of MAGA 286 will look with disgust on the heretics who once walked on the surface world before God Emperor Trump scoured it clean with His Holy Atomic Fire in the Great Crusade Against the East.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:16 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


So but, do folks, really actually want privacy? Certainly pretty much everyone wants to keep their bank pin private, but photos, pets, kids, births omg, trips, body statistics, and pretty much something of anything someone is posting to facebook. We want protections, we don't want to miss a job opportunity because of disapproval of our wild weekend once, but if that's a non-issue, really how much privacy do most folks really want?

(this from someone with maybe three photos anywhere on the interwebs, although my cell# is on ancient perl usenet posts if you really go looking :)
posted by sammyo at 3:12 PM on December 8, 2016


really how much privacy do most folks really want?

A lot! If I post ten things online in a day, each representing maybe a minute of my life, that leaves 1430 minutes I've chosen not to share. That's only .7% of my daily life I'm choosing to share, with a 99.3% Let's Keep This To Myself rate.
posted by Greg Nog at 3:44 PM on December 8, 2016 [3 favorites]


Is two key encryption mathematically impossible? That is, strong, hard PKI but with two equally strong private keys? Then for a certain class of private messages one key could be held in escrow, only to be accessed through well defined court action. (or long enough term, historian access)

You have to trust the escrow. And frankly, given how trustworthy the FBI, NSA, etc. have been so far I wouldn't trust any escrow involving them at all.

really how much privacy do most folks really want?

Ask someone if you mind watching them pee.
posted by jonnay at 3:48 PM on December 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


So but, do folks, really actually want privacy? Certainly pretty much everyone wants to keep their bank pin private, but photos, pets, kids, births omg, trips, body statistics, and pretty much something of anything someone is posting to facebook. We want protections, we don't want to miss a job opportunity because of disapproval of our wild weekend once, but if that's a non-issue, really how much privacy do most folks really want?

A lot, actually!
The problem with your argument is that you're assuming that people actually understand the level of data gathering that these websites for, when the reality is that these corporations go to lengths to conceal that. This isn't an informed deal whatsoever, and the worse bit is the people we expect to look out about this are heavily compromised. (Ever wonder why the EFF's "Who's Got Your Back" report only covers government surveillance? Guess who helps fund them?)
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:04 PM on December 8, 2016 [5 favorites]


What he's roughly saying is something more like we allow history no secrets we can uncover

I think this a fair and sympathetic reading of the article, and softened my approach somewhat. It still seems like mistaking the map for the territory to me.

Secrets are kept for all kinds of survival type issues, and pretending like this isn't the case, and will ever not be the case, approaches good old utopian thought.

I've since realized I'm not the audience for this article. I've enjoyed Stephenson's fiction writing, but was dismayed at the poor quality of non-fiction here, and it's completely clouding my judgement. I quite liked his Unix book from ten or fifteen years ago, so this was quite a surprise ...

Wat. This was Gibson. Ah! This explains everything.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 4:15 PM on December 8, 2016


I don't put much stock in the Two Cultures, but Gibson isn't a technologist.

Yeah I was gonna say this is... a dude with an English degree.

Ever wonder why the EFF's "Who's Got Your Back" report only covers government surveillance? Guess who helps fund them?

I don't think it would be accurate to say that the EFF is not concerned with private sector surveillance but they could certainly be more aggressive about it.
posted by atoxyl at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2016


N0 M0R3 S3CR3TS
posted by blue_beetle at 6:38 PM on December 8, 2016


History became an interest of mine when I became aware of the back stories to everything. I suppose Paul Harvey might have had something to do with it, but historians who dug up details about one or another epoch became my sources for information and, eventually, a kind of grudging realization that I was like a rube in a vast palace hall who discovered a marvelous parquet floor under an equally marvelous full size carpet, and I had only lifted up a small corner to reveal it.
For those interested-and I can't imagine a crew more disposed to read it-I recommend Toynbee's "A Study of History". It's a slog, but a sense of humor about it does come through, and there's nothing like discovering from a master story-teller the rest of the story.
Sangermaine, I loved your comment about "scoured it clean". I'm always pleased when my search for a good laugh ends here, especially if I've started the day feeling morose.

As for Gibson's essay, I couldn't read it. The NYT is blocked in China. But I'll surmise that the idea we have of history as All That Is Revealed can never get a decent day in court in a system which deliberately sells everyone a blinkered view of reality, anyway.
I'm still digesting Wikipedia's Culture Industry and Society of the Spectacle.
posted by girdyerloins at 10:42 PM on December 8, 2016


SETEC Astronomy

There's a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets. It's about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think... it's all about the information! The world isn't run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It's run by little ones and zeroes, little bits of data. It's all just electrons.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 4:14 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's true people rarely think deeply about privacy, sammyo, but they absolutely want it, and it visibly influences their actions. Have you ever use cash because a merchant looked sketchy? Have you ever decided not to buy something online partially because the merchant looked sketchy?

We all make these economic decisions that protect our privacy, especially if using a debit card instead of a credit card. There are very good reasons that merchants face increasingly heavy handed legislation requiring protection of consumer data, like GDPR, but frequently merchants do not comply.

I work for GNU Taler, a transaction system that provides anonymity for customers but not merchants. We argue that anonymity for customers reduces liability for merchants and banks, while encouraging sales by reducing the risks for customers.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:37 AM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


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