The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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Is FaceApp a Trap?

In Episode 62 of Leading Lines, I found the example of FaceApp extremely interesting. I remember using FaceApp this summer without a care in the world. At the time I was overseas looking for a bit of fun while waiting for food at a restaurant. My friends and I transformed our faces into ones of the far future with just a click of a button. We did not have a care in the world. After listening to this podcast I can now see how this may have been a mistake. 

As mentioned, the pictures that we used in FaceApp (and the transformed old people pictures) could be sent overseas and used for training exercises for similar technology, or for simple data collection. So, it’s possible that somewhere in Russia or China some machine knows what I will probably look like when I am 70. That has a lot of implications. In an extreme way, who knows what life will bring to people in the next few years. Lets say someone has to go on the run from the government. Now they cannot, simply because many countries have an image of what they look like at various stages of life. Or, in a less extreme case, when traveling overseas, you can be monitored more closely. Not only would they be able to use metadata like credit card history, or the times of calls made, they would also have visual data that would be useful at any point in life. Scary. 


Privacy Rights

When discussing the argument that “I have nothing to hide so surveillance isn’t really an issue for me,” Chris Gilliard brought up an interesting point, stating plainly: that’s simply not how rights work.

I never really comprehended the fuss over privacy. Why is it a big deal for a big corporation or government to look at what we’re doing. If you have nothing to hide, who cares and why should it matter? Gilliard really helped broaden my perspective on the topic. I now understand the faultiness of that logic. For example, with the First Amendment, the United States’ Bill of Rights grants citizens freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petition. Using the same argument people often use against privacy and applying it to something like speech, it becomes rather ridiculous. “I have nothing bad to say about the government, so I don’t have a problem with my speech and writing being restricted.”

Rights are the fundamental rules are humans are owed in life, and according to our societal values, privacy is one of these rights.

The Gilded Age of Surveillance Capitalism

One phrase that Chris Gilliard used in the Leading Lines podcast that really stuck out to me, presumably because I had never heard it before, was his use of the term “surveillance capitalism.” In the podcast he was using it to compare how colleges and universities have borrowed, in his words, “some of the worst practices” of companies that collect data. There was never a term in my vocabulary to describe what I have witnessed, as I’m sure most people have, corporations like Amazon or Facebook doing—collecting and analyzing the data of everyday people to somehow profit off of this knowledge. “Surveillance capitalism” sums it up perfectly.

When I think of any big leap forward in human history—usually it is associated with a term like the “agricultural revolution” or “industrial revolution.” These terms connote a grand change, typically a positive one, in the quality of life for humans and the organization of society, and they are always associated with the way humans exchange goods—in a sense, the progression of man to fully capitalist societies. In the Western world we live in, capitalism is good, it connotes democracy and liberty and laisse faire. But where do we draw the line on the progress of capitalism? When does it go too far? It’s not a nuanced issued. It’s one that we have seen time and time again in the policy making of the United States.

So back to “surveillance capitalism”…Are we in the midst of a surveillance revolution? Definitely. But what we are seeing these days might just be the beginnings of a surveillance Gilded Age—when companies are creating monopolies just like the robber barons of the 1920s (Cornelius Vanderbilt, anyone??), except now those monopolies are being created on the collection of our whereabouts, tastes, online activities and transactions—when looked at in a connected web, essentially our identities. When companies are allowed to buy and sell a person’s digital (and often physical) history—where will we draw the line?

First Questions

In class the other day, I asked you to brainstorm questions that you might need answered as you prepare your final argumentative essays. Below is a curated list of those questions. I’ll ask you in this week’s bookmark assignment (see next post) to find a source that helps answer one or more of these questions.

  • How effective has mass surveillance been in preventing terror attacks since 9/11?
  • What actual harm has come to US citizens as a result of mass surveillance?
  • How specifically has the pursuit of privacy impeded security efforts?
  • What are the mechanisms behind surveillance? How precisely are people surveilled in the US?
  • What is the balance of threats to national security that come from inside the US versus outside?
  • What specific legal frameworks are relevant to a discussion of mass surveillance?
    • What safeguards are in place to protect people from unwarranted surveillance?
    • What about other regulations or policies that govern privacy? Like regulations that might govern Facebook?
  • What reasons for surveillance does a government have other than terrorism prevention?
  • What have experts predicted for the future of surveillance?
  • What alternatives to mass surveillance have been proposed, and by whom?
  • What does polling say about public perception of surveillance and privacy?
  • What does this debate look like other countries? Say, China or the EU?
  • What do experts say about the risks of government “back doors” in software?

Surveillance is Power

“When inmates believe they are being watched, they conform to what they believe to be the norms of the prison and the expectations of their jailors. Surveillance is a mechanism by which powerful entities assert their power over less powerful individuals.” (74)

This immediately reminds me of the panopticon, a completely surveilled prison design of Jeremy Bentham’s. Powerful individuals often assert themselves as tyrannical rulers, and in every single example, the society they create is devoid of privacy, full of spies and surveillance. Privacy is a degree of freedom that can be very detrimental. If the nature of any action is hidden from any authority, then any action could theoretically be allowed. Almost always authority is powerful for a reason, and defying outright is not an option. This means that should the subjects under the authority wish to act in defiance, they must do so in secret. In the panopticon another extremely important element of the design is the lack of communication between inmates. Extreme surveillance accomplishes this effect, as the inmates are unable to speak without being listened to and are thus unable to step outside of the norms set by the authority. In George Orwell’s 1984, the protagonist Winston lives in a dystopian future world where everyone is constantly under the watchful gaze of “Big Brother.” Above all else Winston’s very alone, and feels like he has no actual friends. The threat of punishment from authority is oftentimes more powerful than any physical restraint. The threat that someone might be watching creates enough pressure to follow the rules set out.



No, the Fact I Don’t Want You To Read My Texts Doesn’t Mean I’m Obviously Breaking The Law

They want the right to be ignored by the people who they see as being “in their business.” Teens are not particularly concerned about organizational actors; rather, they wish to avoid paternalistic adults who use safety and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality. (Boyd, 56)

This chapter, and in particular this section, reminded me of a disagreement I’ve had with my parents time and time again – If I’ve got nothing to hide, then I should have nothing to fear, and therefore my parents should be allowed to access my digital communications without me protesting.

Parents often assume that if teens are being secretive, it means they’re doing something illicit, and by monitoring communications, they are protecting their child from harm. Sure, it’s true that teens do things that break house or school rules, or even laws, but if that’s the case, it would make sense that they would use forms of communication that minimize the chance of later incrimination, meaning their messages would still be difficult to access even if their phone was confiscated. And of course, many teens are innocent in all these respects, and yet still want to maintain their privacy.

Kids (usually) don’t want to keep their texts secret out of fear of punishment for illicit activities from their families, schools, or governments. As Boyd mentions throughout the chapter, it’s simply because there’s a certain level of privacy expected from what is essentially the digital form of a private conversation. Even if it takes place on social media- such as a comments section of a post – its still considered to be the equivalent of a private space, in which only certain members are allowed. If you had a group of friends over in one room, it would be considered rude for someone to eavesdrop on your conversation even if they can technically access that space or a space adjacent to it.

This leads me to the second flaw in many parents logic – when a parents reads their child’s texts, or looks through their social media interactions, they aren’t invading just their own child’s privacy. My parents, for example, often argued that as my parents, they were entitled to the right to invade my privacy. However, by looking at my texts without my permission, they are also invading the privacy of the other party in the conversation. Even if the information being shared isn’t illicit or even that sensitive, it’s awkward and socially odd for someone to have knowledge of the private conversations of people they only indirectly know. The discomfort in these situations doesn’t arise from fear of punishment – rather, it’s the fuzzy boundaries and awkward relationships that can result from such surveillance.

Teenagers should possess their privacy

Whether privacy is a “right” that children can or cannot have, or a privilege that teens must earn, adult surveillance shapes teens’ understanding of—and experience with—privacy.

Our parents are the earliest teachers of us and their actions and way of teaching really shape us the understanding of the world of privacy. Parents as the people who love us most, they really want to ensure our safety in our daily life, so they will ask what have you done today in school and questions like this. Their purpose of surveillance their children is good, but sometimes interference with their children a lot is bad for their development. Children will rely too much on their parents and tell them all the problems that they have. By doing this, their parents will intervene in their children’s lives a lot and this will result in their children lacking being independent. When we grow up and finally need to handle all the stuff by ourselves, we become less confident in finishing it by ourselves. Without parents’ surveillance, we are more likely making mistakes since we may have never learned from our own mistakes. If parents provide their children with more freedom and give them more privacy, they can explore and learn from their own experiences. With this, children will learn to handle their own privacy and their own life. Besides parents, society also should create a private environment for teenagers to live in as general.

Ineffective but Accurate

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham introduced a design he called a panopticon (“all seeing”) to be used in prisons or institutions such that all inmates can be watched by a single guard. Although there aren’t any structures of this model in existence, the concept can be viewed as a symbol for modern government surveillance. Benjamin Walker argues that this metaphor is weak, but I would argue that the panopticon, although not the most effective model, actually offers an accurate representation of our current system of surveillance.

The key feature of the panopticon is that each participant is unable to know whether he or she is being watched. The assumption, therefore, is that each inmate is inclined to behave as if they were in fact being monitored all the time. However, a single guard cannot watch a large number of people individually at the same time. Any informed inmate who knows the concept of the model understands that it is impossible that they are actually being watched all the time, realizing they  can get away with misbehaviors some of the time. For this reason, the panopticon is conceptually flawed.

Although the panopticon may not be the most efficient model, I think it actually offers a pretty accurate description of what we understand about the current system of surveillance. It is impossible for a single individual or organization to monitor all the online activity of everyone. If participants understand the system, they know that they can’t possibly be monitored all the time. People believe they can and still do get away with shady online activities.

We in Fact Know

The argument that Benjamen Walker presents is one that claims that the analogy of the Panopticon does not correlate with the surveillance of our conversations and our actions. For the most part, I believe that Benjamin Walker has every right to say this simply because of the fundamental basis for both of these concepts.

The Panopticon, in essence, is a building that serves as a “surveillance machine”. It was a structure that Jeremy Bentham advocated for and mainly thought of its use as a prison, where the prisoners sat in their respective cells in the open circular building, while the guards stood in the illuminated tower, having the ability to watch the prisoners at any given moment. Due to the illumination of the center tower, the prisoners could not see outside their cell, which means that they do not know if they are being watched at any point in time. And while this analogy can be generally acceptable, understanding what surveillance is in our context can help us understand the flaws of this comparison.

One noticeable hole is that in terms of surveillance, we do in fact know that we are being watched. In fact, we have come to accept the fact that we are being watched practically all the time. Yet many a time, we don’t let that thought affect what we decide to see or what we decide to say in our daily conversations. The comparison to the prison would be accurate if the government was hindering our every word, our every Google search, etc. But because this is not the case, the Panopticon cannot be an effective way to describe the surveillance that happens today.

The Panopticon as a Faulty Metaphor

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon: a prison where a guard is located in a tower. He can see all the prisoners, but the prisoners can not see him. In addition, the prisoners are not aware if they are being watched or not. As a result, prisoners act on their best behavior. Some have equated the idea of the Panopticon to Internet surveillance. I agree with Walker’s argument that you can not compare the two.

The main fault in this analogy is the fact that citizens are unaware of the fact that the government can look at their Internet data. We are mostly ignorant to the exact magnitude of the government’s surveillance abilities. As a result, people do not try to make their search history particularly clean or innocent. In addition, I believe that if people were aware that the government was watching their online activity, most individuals would not alter their actions much as the average person is not doing anything illegal online.

Another issue with the Panopticon metaphor is that the prisoners are completely isolated from one another. The Internet has the complete opposite effect on its users, actually bringing people together and connecting individuals on a level never seen before in history. Because of this connection, individuals are able to share their ideas of surveillance. If someone becomes suspicious of their privacy, they would be able to share their sentiments with other Internet users.

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