Dangerous Technologies and the Propagation of Information

A recent article on the tracking of cellphones led to a discussion in my twitter feed about the use of private industry innovation by government, and the potential for its "misuse" by governments and those who are perhaps less ethical than those who are using these tools and techniques for their intended purposes.

I Have a Hammer

I put "misuse" into scare quotes for a very specific reason: regardless of the intent of the creator; regardless of any ethical constraints; regardless of any "shoulds" or "oughts" by society, a tool of any sort that is fit for use for a good purpose is just as fit for use for a bad purpose.

Conversely, if you attempt to neuter the capability of a tool to be used for bad purposes, you will neuter the ability to use the tool effectively for good purposes as well.

A familiar example is children's safety scissors vs. regular scissors: while regular scissors are very effective at cutting, they're effective at cutting things other than paper--things like clothes, say, or fingers. Children's safety scissors (which advertise that they "only cut paper!") are notoriously poor for the purpose; they will perform the job, but badly and at a much lower quality than a proper pair of sharp shears.

This same principle is universal across the whole spectrum of tools, whether the tools being referred to are scissors, or encryption, or big data analytics.

These are Big Tools

Big Data analytics are tools. They're rather large and complex tools, made up of many smaller tools--things like statistical correlations, databases, collection points to gather data--but they are tools nonetheless. The way that Silicon Valley prefers to use them is a purpose many capitalists laud - the advertised purpose is to 'connect' consumers with goods and services that are 'relevant' to their interests by watching them and anticipating their wants and needs.

That, at least, is the stated goal - which, if you are cynical about it, you might phrase as "to reduce the friction between a consumer's wallet and a company's bank account."

This intended purpose, however, is just one of the ways in which this type of tool can be used. Math has no morals; adding six and five will give eleven to the worst mass murderer just the same as it will give eleven to the saintliest. Math is a tool, and as such can be used for 'approved' purposes - the capital economy - just as effectively for 'disapproved' purposes - pervasive surveillance.

It does not take that much imagination to see how a Shady Government Agency could turn these tools to the kind of uses that the creators did not intend. Advertisers are all about observing and predicting the actions of individuals; so, too, are police agencies. Advertisers want to collect information as seamlessly and frictionlessly as possible so that those they observe act naturally; that is the same goal government surveillance has. Advertisers want to build up a large dossier on individuals so they can target them as accurately as possible; the same applies to police. Advertisers want to retain information as long as possible so that they can correlate over time; so, too, do police agencies.

Give Me Six Words

"Give me six words written by the hand of the most honest of men, and I will find therein cause to hang him" -- Cardinal Richelieu

The factor that generates the most unease about Government possession of these capabilities is the notion that Government is able to apply force to individuals based on the kinds of correlations that they determine are problematic or indicative of a crime. As stated above with Richelieu's Maxim, any data at all that can be traced back to an individual can be concievably used as evidence to order such force to be used against you.

This kind of unease led to @Wolverineks stating:

@munin @fnxTX who cares if adtrackers buy info. People with guns are a different story.

The common perception, then, is that advertisers buying and selling personal profiles of individuals is a legitimate activity, but government using the exact same capabilities to determine where you are and what you're doing by watching your cellphone location information is illegitimate.

Show Me the Money

An easy enough solution would be to, as an industry, resolve not to sell such dual-use tools to Government users.


Leaving aside the almost certain rejection of such measures by a significant portion of the industry that does not share the ethical rejection of the application of force by a Government agency against some portion of its citizenry that has caught its attention, there is, further, no way to effectively enforce such a boycott.

First, Government has the capability of forming business relationships with companies as a necessary part of how it does business. A primary reason to have a Government is to have a neutral third party for adjudicating and enforcing contracts; necessary in that function is the capability to make contracts, and thus contract with various entities to provide goods and services for it to function. If the Government decides that it requires the capabilities that Advertising has created for itself, it is perfectly capable of buying them via any number of contracted companies.

Second, Government has the money. Publicly traded companies are beholden to their shareholders to operate in the shareholders' best interests; passing up an enormous customer that will vastly increase the profits of the company - and the shareholders - due to ethical constraints will inevitably result in lawsuit on lawsuit and accusations of malfeasance.

Thirdly, there are many ways, both overt and covert, that a Government can apply force to break such boycotts, even in the unlikely event that an entire industry decides not to do business with it and the shareholders for all the companies involved play along.

The long and short of it is that the Government will obtain these tools one way or another, and that they are likely to be seen by the industry as just another customer. Further, a customer with very deep pockets who will enrich the company significantly, so any modifications to the tools to make them more attractive to this customer and more likely to be purchased are likely to be made.

The Genie is Out of the Bottle

These tools have been created, and the knowledge that these techniques exist cannot be repressed. There's no means by which the spread of this information can be quashed. Putting limitations on Government use only works inasmuch as the agencies involved are honest - and as we have seen time and time again, Government agencies are perfectly willing to ignore laws and policies if they interfere with the agency's aims and goals.

The tools exist. Attempting to restrict how they are used is ineffective; policies will not constrain those who do not fear the penalties for breaking them from using them in ways that the policy forbids.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

The only way to prevent the overreach of Government surveillance is for the overall population to reject all surveillance, whether by industry or by Government.

This means taking every measure possible to opt out of information collection, whether by looking for voluntary opt-out measures or by forcibly blocking information collection.

This means exposing as few of your activities to surveillance as possible. This means practicing operational security around social media, and refusing to disclose details of what you are doing and where you are doing it.

(Tradecraft is a complicated kettle of fish, and requires much more discussion than I have the patience for here.)

This means limiting your social media usage, and avoiding discussing things that are not intended to be publicly known on social media websites - even in 'private' messages. This means using encryption effectively in as many communications as possible, and learning how encryption works. This means avoiding using, whenever possible, services that are based around collecting and disseminating your information, whether social networks, public email services, or "value cards" at your local market.

A Tool for One is a Tool for Everyone

Implementing surveillance for one regime inherently implements it for anyone else who can buy, borrow, or steal access to the service. This applies to, amongst other things, so-called "golden key" backdoors intended to surveil for "legitimate" Governmental reasons - which are just as useful for repressive regimes, censorship, criminal syndicates, or malicious overseas agencies.

Even the very knowledge that the surveillance exists provides an adversary with an avenue of exploration that they can use to find out ways to harm their target.

It's Going on Your Permanent Record

Further, information collected may be innocent now, but that does not mean it cannot be used in a way you dislike later.

The classic example is that of information collected under a permissive regime that is retroactively criminalized by a later repressive regime - however, this is a fairly weak consideration.

Much more relateable is the notion of a second chance - that someone's youthful indiscretions ought not be held against them in their later life. Many people make mistakes when they are young; this does not mean that they are going to continue the same behaviors when they are older - people grow and change.

Data does not care if you are trying to change, however. If you have a history of having behaved badly, and this history is recorded, then you will always have this stigma attached to you.

This has significant societal harm in some cases - those who have behaved badly enough to have been imprisoned for a felony will have the "felon" property attached to them at all times afterward. Felons are forbidden by society at large from certain things like the ownership of weapons; they are disqualified from most employment; even though they have theoretically paid the costs of their transgression, they are societally shunned afterwards. They are largely considered beyond redemption.

A 'Big Data' profile is much the same as a police record in this respect. It is the proverbial "Permanent Record" of everything that you've done, and anyone who is sufficiently dedicated to disqualifying you from societal participation will find something in your past that will justify this disqualification.

Who Controls the Spice Controls the Universe

This puts the advantage in any given transaction firmly in the hands of the person or organization who has possession of your Permanent Record - that is, the record of your past actions and past discussions.

There may be laws that forbid credit agencies from maintaining the data point that you filed for bankruptcy on your credit rating for longer than a given time, sure - but if you discussed it on Facebook and they can find it, then what's to stop them from using it as justification to deny you a loan?

There may be laws that forbid discrimination against you because of your race when it comes to housing - but if you were tagged in a picture of a party that was associated with an underage drinking arrest some years ago, there's nothing that says you can't be disqualified for that.

There may be laws that forbid firing you because of your sexual orientation - but if you were present at a protest against a given cause that the parent company of your organization supports, then that would be justification enough to fire you.

Whoever controls the flow of information and how it is disseminated controls how the world works.

...and You Are a Sandworm

When the information pertains to you, you have some control over who has what information and how far it can go.

This means that if you refuse to provide certain information, you can exert control over those who would use it against you - and conversely, when you give up information to advertisers on your behavior, you are allowing them a means of controlling you at a later point in time.

If you allow yourself to be surveilled, you are allowing yourself to be controlled. If you allow yourself to be controlled, then you are giving up your free will to an outside agency.

It's also worth noting that some outside agencies can make decisions on the kind of content they will provide you based on what they know about you - Facebook, for instance, is notorious for performing experiments based on these concepts. The information about what you do that you grant them enables them to control what you see.

Keep These Few Precepts In Mind

If there is one concept to take away from this, it is that no useful tool has only one use. A tool that is created for one purpose, if it fulfils its function correctly and effectively, can be used just as well for other purposes that you may not find acceptable.

This is not to say that you should avoid making tools - but it does mean that you should be very careful how you expose yourself to their use.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.