“The link between surveillance and fear"
May 20, 2014 9:22 PM   Subscribe

A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy is the title of a keynote talk that Peter Watts (previously) gave to the International Association Of Privacy Professionals' Canada Symposium.
My immediate reaction was that this had to be some kind of cruel hoax. But they hooked me anyway, with what basically came down to a double-dare: “You’ve got a chance to talk to the regulators who enforce privacy law and the executives as big companies who make decisions about what to do with your data – what do you want to say to them?” Well. Since you ask.

If You Can't Protect The Data, Burn It To The Ground
If marine biologist-turned-best-selling author Peter Watts is an expert on anything, it’s mammals. Speaking to 400 or so privacy pros and regulators gathered last week at the IAPP Canada Privacy Symposium to talk privacy and data protection, he used that experience to send a rather jarring—and anything but conventional—message:

Mammals don’t respond well to surveillance. We consider it a threat. It makes us paranoid, and aggressive and vengeful. But we’ll never win against the giant corporations and governments that watch us, Watts argued, so all we can develop is a surefire defense.
If you're a fan of Watts, you may enjoy these excerpts?previews? from Blindsight's 'side-quel' Echopraxia:
Since There Still Seems to be Some Confusion Over the Title…
This insane Ferris wheel stretched a hundred meters from side to side.
A Bit of a Twilight Vibe
Break Fast
Bright Eyes
Worst Date Ever
posted by the man of twists and turns (30 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
First link is busted.
posted by wuwei at 9:34 PM on May 20, 2014

Cache of the first link.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:36 PM on May 20, 2014

I look forward to reading the article (once the link is fixed).

A bit of context: the IAAP are largely a group of corporate lawyers. Most of what they do is to ensure that the companies they work for are in compliance with regulatory requirements (as well as other things to possibly lower their liability in regards to privacy related matters). These aren't privacy activists.

Ironically, the most of the people you will find actually passionate at the conference are people working for the Canadian government; they are articulate, passionate, and leading the world in privacy related regulations.

I went to this conference once (a few years ago), as an invited guest of a company that had business interests in the privacy space.

Imagine my shock when I was given (as part of the packet you get at a conference) a list of attendees, their first/last names, and their company affiliation. The organizers of the IAAP conference seemed quite shocked when I expressed discomfort having this information being freely distributed to strangers.
posted by el io at 9:41 PM on May 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

Looks like his WordPress database is down. I know it was running yesterday when I read the post. Here's a link to the cached post for .ca users if BungaDunga's link above isn't working for you.
posted by figurant at 9:48 PM on May 20, 2014

Do we really need to invoke this evolutionary psychology savanna nonsense to talk about privacy?

And what exactly is his point? That we should delete all our data if there's a chance it could fall into the wrong hands (hint, you wouldn't know if it did)? Or should we be preemptively deleting the entire internet? Every machine and every piece of software is compromised already, after all.
posted by dilaudid at 10:13 PM on May 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

dilaudid - not that it refutes your complaint but just for context Watts is going into the primate analogy in response to David Brin using it, wrongly in Watts opinion, in a talk about transparency in society. That's explained in the first link but it's dead at the moment.
posted by Wretch729 at 11:09 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

A bit of context: the IAAP are largely a group of corporate lawyers. Most of what they do is to ensure that the companies they work for are in compliance with regulatory requirements (as well as other things to possibly lower their liability in regards to privacy related matters). These aren't privacy activists.

Not entirely true. IAPP also has a lot of members that work for government information regulators. Further, most of the privacy advocates/activists (who are, more often than not, subject matter specialists who do a great deal of consulting) and academics in my jurisdiction are also members.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:35 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can see some implications of what he's reported to have said. I wish we could hear the whole speech. Watts has certainly made an interesting and important point about privacy.

The problem with the analogy as I see it, is that these days your identity is unfortunately a lot more fixed (social security numbers, credit scores, facebook and the big online players insisting on real names, etc) so one can't simply burn the lamb if it's caught.

I'm making a bit of a jump perhaps, that all of this data collected all vectors together into identity based profiles, but that's the problem with just advocating for data destruction. There's plenty of data points that can be collected, and with enough of them 'they' will construct a model of who you are. And if 'they' haven't outright intercepted what you say, they can infer it from what 'they' collect.

Side Note: It's impossible these days to emulate my biggest childhood hero, Blank Reg, (from the old Max Headroom tv show; a Blank was a person who didn't exist in any computer system.) And we haven't gotten fed up enough for there to be groups of St Jude's Chadors lurching around.

I have a feeling that data destruction will take two forms. A device, like a usb stick, containing one's PGP keys that has a failsafe erase button, which makes that key forever lost and all data encrypted with it disposable. The other form will be an expensive service that sics teams of lawyers after your data to compel it's deletion. The latter is possible now, the former will have to be forged into law to get around things like data holding company's right (and EULAs) to keep ahold of it forever. And if we are going to heat up that forge, we should keep on the bellows until privacy is a universal right.
posted by Catblack at 12:33 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

There will never be privacy again. People by and large are fraidy-cats who will accept any cage if you point at their odious offspring and make threatening sounds. For every privacy advocate there are thousands of people who would give up every right they have to keep bad guys away from their money and kidlings. One of which is easily replaceable. There will never be privacy again until after some global apocalypse which destroys the current status quo. All of this protestation is noise that means nothing.
posted by umberto at 3:34 AM on May 21, 2014 [15 favorites]

Metafilter: fraidy-cats who will accept any cage if you point at their odious offspring and make threatening sounds
posted by Renoroc at 4:36 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was amused that he was surprised conservatives embraced his ideas... Lets think of all the files that companies would love to purge for whatever reason: financial records, SEC filings, merger plans, shell corporations, and any number of unsavory techniques used to hide their practices.

The best way to sell something is a triple win - barring that a double win. Under traditional practices, business has sided with government, because that has allowed for the best profits - but if they can screw the government and seem to side with privacy advocates by helping craft legislation that hides shenanigans and prevents future accountability on their part - they can turn it into a triple win. The government still gets something - if even aggregated data, the customers get an apparent voice in the surveillance state conversation, and corporations destroy any records of wrongdoings with the framing that they are protecting the little guy...
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:09 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

We live now in dwellings that are woefully unprepared to be defended against any kind of attack. Yet nobody declares that there will never be safety again until some global apocalypse destroys the current status quo.

Privacy is endangered not by technology but by lack of legal defenses that protect it by default.
posted by hat_eater at 5:10 AM on May 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Privacy is endangered not by technology but by lack of legal defenses that protect it by default.

That presumes the rule of law. Which I think it's pretty clear we no longer have. I would argue that without that we've already lost civilization. Burning shit down is just the best available response to that. We can't rebuild a legal system or an economic system or pretty much anything else that we can trust until we've removed the toxic and brutal machine that is filling all the available space.
posted by Naberius at 6:07 AM on May 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

The post that apparently got him invited doesn't have too much that's new but it's worth a read. Here's that primate analogy:
People are primates, Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. “But just maybe,” he allowed, “they’ll let us look back.”

Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?
posted by postcommunism at 6:13 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

He's got a point, but like many scientists he glosses over a million years of socio-cultural history to make an oversimplified argument that is actually weaker than it could be.

Please, people. Stop practicing anthropology without a license. Everyone jumps on the pseudoscience nonsense. Don't let the Scientism Lite and Reductive Social Darwinism nonsense go by without comment.

That being said, yes. Data aggregates need to be destroyed and poisoned if they cannot be protected.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:15 AM on May 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

He's not citing it as scientific evidence, he's extending Brin's metaphor to point out how "looking back" as a solution to state surveillance is absurd:
Chelsea Manning looked back; she’ll be in jail for decades. Edward Snowden looked back and has been running ever since. All he did to put that target on his back was confirm something most of us have suspected for years: those silverbacks are recording every move we make online. But try to look back and they’ll scream terrorism and national security, and leave an innocent person on the no-fly list for no better reason than to cover up a typo.

Look back? Don’t make me laugh.
posted by postcommunism at 6:25 AM on May 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

"Dear coyotes: please don't feed my sheep to the wolves."
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 6:56 AM on May 21, 2014

Point being that we need to get a real damn sheep dog, already.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 7:00 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

To be clear, I'm talking about the "lions in the tall grass" reductive nonsense as reason for behaviour today.

I, by and large, probably hie pretty closely to his modern political views.
posted by clvrmnky at 7:01 AM on May 21, 2014

Watts never wants back in the US.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:13 AM on May 21, 2014

Definitely worth reading:
Why I was Forced to Shut Down Lavabit
The guy running Lavabit was apparently denied any kind of due process. Fucking insane.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:10 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps most amazingly, at least one person in the audience actually knew who I was before I started speaking. An actual fan, as it were— someone who needed photographic proof of our encounter that he could present to disbelieving friends back home who were, he said “even bigger fans”. That was not the amazing part, though. The amazing part was that this guy— Don Scott by name— is a member of the Alberta Legislature. A Conservative. And his riding encompasses the Alberta tar sands.

I find it astonishing— and not a little disquieting— that anyone from that end of the spectrum, representing those kinds of interests, could possibly be a fan. I mean, that would imply that he was familiar with my work, right? And anyone who’s read my work must be aware of my bitter environmentalist leanings, right?
I think it will take another generation for people to rediscover the connection between ideology and action. If people don't get the the ideology in his books, what was the point of his speech? I think only when everyone has spent their whole lives living with 24/7 365 degree mass media will they start to get that chasing and audience is futile.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:57 AM on May 21, 2014

Watts never wants back in the US.

Well, he was beaten by US border cops for literally no reason (previously), so I doubt he was eager to go back to the US anyway.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:53 PM on May 21, 2014

Cory Doctorow writes at BoingBoing: "His take on surveillance and its relationship to control, authoritarianism and corruption is both sharp-edged and nuanced. And his proposal for a remedy is provocative and difficult to argue with."

David Brin replies: Brave Citizenship Beats Scorched Earth - "Go ahead and read the intelligent and articulate - though deeply-relentlessly wrongheaded - Watts missive."
Seriously, find me one time and place where blithe assurances of data-leakproofing or data-destruction proved reliable, across thirty years. Or ever. You want to base your freedom on assurances that you can "destroy" data? Do you trust any "Delete" command to reliably and actually "burn to the ground" any single thing that was ever turned into bits and transmitted across fiber or wires or through the air?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:34 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow! That Brin response is at Comic Book Guy levels of pissiness!

Yeah, he's being kind of a dick. He's not wrong though. Watt's proposition is probably not that tenable. But it isn't meant to be. He's trying to stimulate debate.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 7:07 PM on May 29, 2014

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