The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: government surveillance Page 1 of 2

The Panopticon Metapaphor isn't All That Bad.... Sue Me

In the 18th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed the Panopticon, meant for prisoners to be monitored by an all seeing guard, who himself, could not be seen. Comparing this to surveillance now, particular regarding the internet, even thought the metaphor is kind of bad. It is not too far off of what could be happening.

Anyone and everyone who is using the internet knows that their usage habits are being monitored; if you do not not know, now you know. It is called data mining. That is why when you are on Forever 21's website shopping for dresses, you see Forever 21 dress advertisements on Facebook not even minutes after you have clicked off of Forever 21. This technically fits in with how a company, whether Facebook or Forever 21, is watching your online activity similar to how a guard is watching several prisoners.

I am also going to take this time to compare internet users to prisoners within a Panopticon. Our data is constantly being mined and our usage being monitored, however, we cannot really do anything about it. Before using most of these websites, we usually make an agreement for said website to do so. This is similar to how prisoners cannot (and will not) do much about a guard watching their every move.

Now in relation to the government being said guard and internet users being "prisoners," the Panopticon metaphor is not the best. Although there are a vast amount of theories out, there is not an "all seeing government." At least not within the United States. It is completely possible for the government obtain information about a person if they absolutely have to, however, the government is not constantly watching millions of citizens.

To sum it all up, Panopticon metaphor for data mining? Good. For government surveillance? Bad.

The Panopticon Isn't That Bad... But It's Not Good Either

As explained in the podcast, the Panopticon is essentially the idea of a tower that looks over a prison. The tower is illuminated so that the guard in the tower can see the inmates, but the inmates cannot see the guard. Although this could used to exemplify today's government surveillance, Walker disagrees, saying that it is a “terrible metaphor.”

To take a side in this debate is very difficult. On the one hand, the government has bribed sites like Yahoo, or Facebook, allowing them to access all of our information without our consent. On the other hand, data mining goes further than the negative assumptions we place on it. As Walker points out, in todays society we see data mining as exclusively negative. The government must be using our information for their personal gain right? However data mining does not solely have bad implications. One could use data mining to conduct studies in order to improve our internet experiences. You could also use data mining to research children in a comfortable setting. These are not bad things. In this case, I would agree with Walker. 

However things get a bit sketchy when you remember the negative possibilities of surveillance. We do not know what the government is using our data for. They could be simply conducting research to better our lives, or they could be discovering ways to most efficiently imprison members of society in order to create a mass genocide. That's a bit extreme. But I guess it could happen theoretically. My point is, just like the prisoners, we do not know what the people in charge are doing. Because of this, I could never definitely say that the Panopticon is a bad metaphor.


The Fallacy of the Panopticon Metaphor

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon is a hypothetical prison based on two concepts: the idea that the officers can spy on the inmates without the inmates knowing they're being spied on, and the premise that the inmates can't communicate with each other due to the separation of their cells. The comparison between current government surveillance and the Panopticon, however, is not an accurate metaphor.

In the Panopticon, the prisoners know they’re in prison. There are physical cells keeping the inmates from talking to each other, reminding them of their imprisonment. However, in reality, the "prisoners" of the government often don't even know they’re in prison. Many citizens are unaware of the government's ability to see into their lives through the Internet. They live in ignorant bliss, thinking that their lives are any sort of private. And, because they don't know they're "imprisoned", they don't have the thought to protect their data, and fight back against those doing the surveillance.

The other caveat is the concept that the prisoners are completely separate from each other. In reality, the web allows us to communicate with each other, and gather information through online sources. If we want to educate ourselves about anything (including governmental surveillance procedures), we can do it. Those who are aware that they're "imprisoned" do have the ability to band together and rebel, or at least try. The question of how we can best fight back still has yet to be answered.


Can panopticon works as a good metaphor?

I do not agree with Benjamen Walker argument: "the Panopticon is a terrible metaphor". Walker argues that there are many companies may have ability to surveillance and these companies can work as a better metaphor for the surveillance. However, I think these two examples are basically same because they both suggest that people are spied without being known. The subject of the panopticon is prisoner, but the company like “yahoo” may check everyone’s email even though the person is law-abiding citizen. If the government use the panopticon as a metaphor, it can provide the citizens a suggestion that the government only uses their system to spy for terrorists. These two kinds of metaphor lead to different consequences. One may result in the protestation of the citizens for invading their personal right, but the other one may not. The word panopticon tends to provide a more positive feeling to the normal citizens that the government only surveillance bad guys. What’s more, the prisoners in the panopticon do not know they are being surveillance or not. This kind of feeling matches with the government actions that we do not know whether we are spied or not. Thus, the panopticon can work as aa good metaphor for the topic of surveillance.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

In Little Brother, Marcus, the main character, frequently argues with his father over the matter of whether we should give up some of our personal freedoms and privacies in order to grant more power to those seeking to prevent harm from threats like terrorism. It's a difficult debate that I have occasionally had with myself, and I've never quite come to a conclusion, but in one of those arguments, Marcus raises a great point: are we really hurting the terrorists by adding security?

The main goal of terrorism is there in the name: terror. They want to scare people-- to make them feel unsafe. That's why their attacks always come in such violent and public forms. One terrorist organization cannot possibly hope to kill each and every citizen of the United States of America, but they could quite possibly make us all fear for our lives.

Marcus's point is this: by adding more checkpoints, more data mining, more tracking, more security, less privacy, are we really acting against the terrorists? Would you really feel safer if the police considered you a potential terrorist and had eyes, ears, and possibly guns pointed in your direction at all times? If they consider you and everyone you know a suspect, then you yourself might begin to suspect those around you.

Suddenly, everyone you see on the street is a potential murderer.

Suddenly, you aren't sure if you should eat at a particular restaurant because there aren't any open seats near the door. What if someone inside started shooting?

Suddenly, you have to think long and hard about accepting a job offer because you would have to take the subway on your commute. Sure, the pay is better, but what if a bomb went off while you were underground?

In an effort to prevent terrorist attacks, law enforcement can inadvertently carry out the end goal of those attacks: terror.


Reimann Sum(feat. Technology)

Technology has quite literally transformed our lives. We live in an age of undeniable prosperity and freedom, where even our poorest live a better life than ancient kings. But in recent years the very technologies that we use for pleasure have been turned against us by governments and bad-faith actors. Of course we don't live in an era of absolute freedom; we agree to cede some of our rights for safety and security. For example, we as a society agree on the use of surveillance cameras as a means of deterrence and protection, but are we ready to make the leap to facial ID? We agree that police should use DNA testing to solve crime, but what about an artificial intelligence reconstruction of a criminal that may present flaws?

One of the most striking paragraphs from Big Brother came up on page 42 when Cory Doctorow discussed how despite advancements in gait recognition software allowed recognition of individuals from their movements, the software's success rate was reduced by any number of external factors including floor material, ankle angle measure, and your energy level. This variability can lead to errors in the system which can often have devastating consequences, especially when peoples' lives and security hang in the balance. The title, I believe, accurately reflects our society's desire to perfect our creations: we input more data points, update more software, create new tools, in a never-ending journey to create the perfect AI tool. But at what point do the ethical complications from such a tool lead to sufficient harm such that an objective cost-benefit analysis would overturn the progress of such a tool? No matter how many data points we inject, a piece of technology will never perfectly emulate the human mind. Every error/mistake that's caused by the inaccuracy of technology threatens our stability, and is only magnified as the scope of the instrument exists. One particular example exists in the NSA. What would be the fallout of an inaccurate terror watch list that was compiled using the latest data points? Although this question is astronomical, it is important that we examine this issue with the utmost scrutiny.

Good Bad Secrets

After San Francisco's security overhaul, one of the latent consequences were all the "not-terrorists" that were caught as a result of the increased surveillance measures. Marcus specifically mentions husbands and wives caught cheating, kids caught sneaking out, and one teenager whose parents discovered he had been visiting the clinic for AIDS medication. These people certainly aren't terrorists - in fact, they're not even drug dealers, thieves, or criminals to any extent. They aren't guilty people, just "people with secrets" (121).

I believe the ability to keep secrets, to some extent, is a completely necessary aspect of any society. I'm not saying that sneaking out is right or wrong, and I'm certainly not saying everyone should cheat on their spouses, but that these are things that should be discovered (or not) and dealt with by the family, not the government. The government has a duty to ensure the safety of its citizens, but only after obtaining consent from its citizens. And in this case, citizens did not give consent to having details of their private, personal lives exposed. Take, for example, a sexually active gay teen growing up in an extremely religious and conservative family. He may need to visit Planned Parenthood to obtain information and medication to stay safe; however, he may not have come out to his parents yet and may not want them knowing this information for a multitude of reasons. Though this case is nuanced, it represents a more broad category of secrets that are kept for the benefit of both the individual and the family. There will always be secrets that need to be kept and actions that need to be hidden, and it is not the government's duty to interfere.

A Trend Towards the Solution

I find it horrible that almost every week I open up my phone to see the news report of some mass shooting. Wether it be one of the gruesome, countless school shootings, or a larger event such as the Las Vegas shooting, the following investigative reports remain the same. In the following days or weeks the police and FBI will eventually uncover online conversations, gun purchases, social media posts, or other digital markers that posed a clear indication of the shooter's intentions. Why do we always find these clues after the fact. After the heartbroken families, crying parents who know they will never see their children again. Always after. Meta data collection and surveillance could completely change the timeline and change that "after", to a "before". If the US government was given permission to use widespread surveillance to stop these atrocities, would that be wrong. Would the parents of victims rather have more privacy, or the chance to see their child grow up. I think it is an easy answer.

Moreover, the already increased amount of electronic surveillance since 9/11 have prevented an attack of that scale from occurring. Even still there has been about 6 major terrorist attacks since, including the Boston Marathon Bombing. So why curtail a movement in the direction of what appears to be the clear solution? National Security is important now more than ever. As criminals and terrorists learn and adapt, so should we.

The Current Role of the Internet

In the beginning of chapter 7, Singh makes several predictions about the future roles of the Internet, many of which are true now. It's definitely true that the Internet has become a significant, if not the most popular medium for exchange, with a massive volume of transactions nowadays taking place solely online. Email has indeed become more popular than conventional mail, and online tax declarations do exist, but for the most part voting still occurs at physical locations. However, Singh's claim that information is the most valuable commodity is the truest and most significant of his claims. Now, a surprising (and scary) amount of information about nearly every individual can be found online, and it doesn't even take that much digging to find it. If you really wanted to, you could easily search through Facebook's repositories of all your information that they collect (and sell!). Digital information has become extremely valuable to advertising companies, because they're willing to pay a lot of money to determine the best way to sell you stuff.

Going along those lines, the elevation of the importance of cryptography is mainly due to the negative consequences of others getting a hold of your information. The most obvious bad example is when identity thefts use your information for malicious reasons, but other concerns include government surveillance and targeted advertising. It's pretty clear why you wouldn't want the government to surveil you, and encryption can help you get around that. It's less clear why targeted advertising is bad, but the reason they can deliver ads tailored to your interests is because they've done extensive research on your browsing history to figure out what you might be interested in, and have probably paid other websites for their data too. While this may not seem terrible, it should be unsettling to everyone that an extensive online profile has been compiled on pretty much everyone who uses the Internet.

A Small Amount of Privacy can be Lost to Feel More Secure

At the Newseum, there is a board that lets people voice their opinion on the privacy versus security debate. The people were told to write down what they would give up to feel safer on a dry erase board. Someone on the board wrote that they would give up some of their privacy. This corresponds with my own beliefs. I think that it is totally fine if the government uses some surveillance techniques. Even though I believe that the government should use surveillance to protect us, they should not be too extreme with the measures that they take. For example, in the novel Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Marcus’s dad was pulled over multiple times in a single trip even though there were no signs of him being guilty of any crime. This is an example of the government being too extreme with their surveillance methods, I believe that these methods are unnecessary. When the government uses extreme surveillance methods that results in no privacy, everything turns into chaos as shown in Little Brother. There is a loss of trust between the government and civilians. It is the civilian’s jobs to trust that the government will protect them, and it is the government’s job to protect the citizens while not violating all of their privacy.

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén