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Liquid surveillance privacy bashfest: Brave Citizens vs Scorched Earth?

Jun 25, 20145 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Two pro-privacy authors have vastly different ideas, but perhaps anything -- even a flame war -- that gets a discussion going about privacy, civil liberties, and surveillance is a good thing.

Like everything in life, there is a plethora of varying opinions when it comes to protecting privacy, freedom and civil liberties. Even when just looking among different privacy advocates, it’s painfully clear that not everyone agrees. While I’m personally not a fan of finger-pointing or name-calling, and I do not know either of these authors concerned with privacy, there are bits and bytes from each that are worth pondering.

Author David Brin gave a keynote at the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) Global Privacy Summit. As IAPP explained, Brin’s keynote message about Big Brother included:

We’re in an age of a technological tsunami. Here in the West, we’re faced with two opposing ideologies: On the left, we believe Big Brother is descending upon us via an oligarchy of faceless corporations. On the right, we believe Big Brother is descending upon us via “snooty academics and faceless bureaucrats.”

The result? A civil war that has completely destroyed our political world. And the only thing that will save us is a fierce militancy that sees the watched becoming the watchers.

After Brinn made his points, he concluded, “Think in terms of how we might reclaim and seize the power to supervise, to be the aggressive citizenry we were born to be, to be worthy of our ancestors who did this exact thing every time we moved to the next stage, so that we’re the ones who ride upon this tsunami into the future.”

In May, at the IAPP Symposium, author Peter Watts spoke about “The Scorched Earth Society: A Suicide Bomber’s Guide to Online Privacy” (pdf). He suggested, “Here’s a wild thought: Don’t just offer data protection, especially since you can’t guarantee it. Offer data destruction instead….A scorched-earth society.” When Watts spoke, he also apparently took issue with some of Brin’s ideas.

Later Brin took issue with some of Watts’ “Scorched Earth” talk, by asking:

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?

A few days ago Watts wrote about Liquid Surveillance, a term borrowed from law professor Neil Richards’ paper titled The Dangers of Surveillance. In it, Richards tackled the legal problems of surveillance law and making the courts understand why surveillance is harmful.

Wanted for violating your privacy KAZ Vorpal

Be warned that if you read Watts’ Liquid Surveillance post, there’s plenty of profanity; by the time you get to the comment section, it’s a regular mudslinging bashfest. The parts about people being “whiners” when it comes to privacy had me frowning. Most any stance is better than the ridiculous “nothing to hide” justification.

Watts agrees that Brin is right when he says “If the watchers watch us, we should damn well be able to watch them in turn.” He disagrees, however, “that both sides will ever have comparable eyesight, that an army of cellphone-wielding Brave Citizens (as opposed to the rest of us moaning whiners) is enough to level the playing field.”

Something both men agree upon is the right to privacy in our homes. Watts wrote:

Take a Man’s Castle, for starters. Even Brin draws the line at domestic privacy: his Transparent Society ends on our doorsteps, explicitly allowing that our homes, at least, will remain unsurveilled. It may have seemed a plausible extrapolation back in the nineties, before Moore’s Law and Surveillance Creep produced such a litter of unholy love-children: the television in your bedroom that reports your viewing habits and the contents of your thumb drives back to corporate headquarters. The back doors built into every Windows operating system from XP on up. The webcam that counts the people in your living room, so that it can shut down your TV if it sees four faces when your subscription to Game of Thrones is only licensed for three. And of course the government, lurking overhead like a rain-swollen overcast sky, turning all of corporate America into its b*tch with a wink and a National Security Letter (and even an actual warrant on rare occasions). The Internet of Things has barely even got off the ground, and these are only a few of the intrusions we’re already facing.

At any rate, if you are interested in an intense – and sometimes even an excruciating – debate about privacy, then you might want to check out both posts, Brin’s Brave Citizenship beats a Scorched Earth Policy and Watts’ Liquid Surveillance. They definitely provide food for thought.

Both men make some valid points, but perhaps you would totally agree with just one or the other? Perhaps anything, even a flame war, that gets a discussion going about privacy, civil liberties and surveillance is a good thing? Yet as both a privacy advocate and a mom, there’s an urge to ask the boys, “Can’t we all just get along?”…and then perhaps add, “You are both grounded!” Relax boys, I’m joking.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.