Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

July 21, 2007

One cannot use spies without sagacity and knowledge,
one cannot use spies without humanity and justice

–Sun Tzu

who is watching you?

Polvo gallery will be hosting an art show in Chicago, from August 3rd to September 1st 2007, called echelon: who is watching you? I suppose we earn the honor of hosting this little historical survey of US surveillance since “Chicagoans may soon be the most watched urbanites in the world.” PoliceOne has an online copy of a 2004 AP article Chicago Moving to ‘Smart’ Surveillance Cameras that is worth a look, in case this is news to you.

But we are the second city after all, and NYC will soon be enjoying a “London-style surveillance veil,” a phrase that’ll send me to the bar for some scotch any day of the week. This package includes Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) technology which, since at least 2004, has been helping London tighten the weave of its dragnet & capture a carnival of suspects more effectively. (Check out the excellent Spy Blog from the UK which is Watching Them Watching Us; there are numerous discussions of ANPR to be found)

I definitely hope to attend opening night of the echelon show, in part to see try and understand what this surveillance means to me as a relatively new Chicagoan. I have been known to peek in on official industry presentations about these kinds of technologies; likewise the echelon show will be a great way to take a read of current discussion in Chicago about escalating digital data-capture technology. Of course the Bush administration is more than happy to support pervasive ground-level invasions of personal citizens’ privacy while drawing lead blinds on its own activities. So far the courts have kept some of these inclinations in check (TOO SLOWLY, in case they’re listening in) but it’s only gotten worse since the Geneva convention-denying Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was confirmed with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

On July 6th 2007, and from an unexpected corner, San Francisco’s Ninth Court of Appeals ruled in US vs Forrester that “Feds can read e-mail, IP addresses without warrant[s].” The crux of their argument is that monitoring email addresses and IP addresses constitutes no greater invasion than that of identifying the information on the outside of a sealed letter, or recording a roll of phone numbers, which are both protected levels of surveillance. Numerous commentators feel that the volume of information available to an agency looking through an electronic list of email chains as well as the volume of information to be gleaned from web sites is far greater than can be traditionally gathered, and constitutes something worthy of 4th amendment protections.

The Volokh Conspiracy in particular has a substantial comment roll about both sides of the issue; JohnMc brings summarizes an interesting point for consideration in our current Web2.0 environment:

Orin, I am going to side with TechieLaw not on the legal merits but the technical issues. The crux of my argument is that as a general basis, with internet your private data is hosted off your premieres. From a business perspective, were the general public not to be afforded the same 4th amendment protections as in their residence then you might as well forget about Web 2.0 and close Sun Corp. down (“The network IS the computer”).

The visionaries see a not too distant future where you keep your data on a contracted provider who has the resources to guarantee always available access and multiple redundant backup. Think Google. However If the only way I can keep my papers private is to keep them on my own server in my own home then that is what will happen. At that point we are back to a technical future equivalent to 1960. It just all runs faster.

The 4th needs to be amended to expand ‘reasonable searches and seizures’ to your papers regardless of location or format.

Couple this with the FBI’s use of exigent letters to illegally convince telephone companies to immediately surrender documents on their existing clients, usually by claiming that appropriate necessary documents were filed, and suddenly the reality seems explosive. With such a large number of free data hosting sites (i.e. ewedrive, JustUpIt, etc.) which will maintain uploaded data for you in a personal account, as well as traditional paid hosting services, the problems seem endless.

Until clear and non-politicized language is developed, within an internationally accepted framework, to erect legally defendable digital borders for private citizenry there will be no lasting security. Lamenting concessions made by the big players can seem academic, especially when we undeniably enjoy so many other freedoms protections in the US, but my feeling is that until a service such as Yahoo can be held accountable, then we are all as vulnerable as Shi Tao.

Als sie mich holten, gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte
–Pastor Martin Niemöller

(Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak up for me.)


Just minutes after launching this post, which I finished a draft of yesterday afternoon, I came across this apropos ruling in today’s NYT article Court Tells U.S. to Reveal Data on Detainees at Guantánamo by William Glaberson:


A federal appeals court ordered the government yesterday to turn over virtually all its information on Guantánamo detainees who are challenging their detention, rejecting an effort by the Justice Department to limit disclosures and setting the stage for new legal battles over the government’s reasons for holding the men indefinitely.

The ruling, which came in one of the main court cases dealing with the fate of the detainees, effectively set the ground rules for scores of cases by detainees challenging the actions of Pentagon tribunals that decide whether terror suspects should be held as enemy combatants.

It was the latest of a series of stinging legal challenges to the administration’s detention policies that have amplified pressure on the Bush administration to find some alternative to Guantánamo, where about 360 men are now being held.

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Washington unanimously rejected a government effort to limit the information it must turn over to the court and lawyers for the detainees.


It didn’t end there, though:

The ruling also included significant victories for the government, including a decision allowing the Pentagon to limit the subjects that the lawyers can discuss with detainees and authorizing special Pentagon teams to read the lawyers’ mail and remove unauthorized comments.

Why are these rulings often such mixed blessings? This is how New York Lawyer Wells Dixon, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, sums up the essential stalemate at the close of the article:

“Once again,” Mr. Dixon said, “we are left to rely on the government to produce all of the information that it says exists.”


Crackle-Glazed Pottery

July 20, 2007

Adult UK version of cover

It’s hard to believe that Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is nearly at an end. I can trace so much of my life over the past few years just by remembering where I was as each book and each movie came out. I didn’t start reading them until the Chamber of Secrets, and I remember I wasn’t too impressed. They seemed cute and well planned out, but not really of a different caliber. My favorite “young adult” books are more along the lines of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, or especially The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell (illustrated by Maurice Sendak); youthful at heart and respectful of their younger readers. Potter seemed like fun but little more.

Something kept me going, though, and with a little pressure from my friends I picked up Prisoner of Azkeban. Either Rowling got that much better or I just caught up with her, but man is that a great book; a thrilling, scary, mature YA page-turner with an Agatha Christie worthy surprise at the end. Goblet of Fire was just as surprisingly good, and I haven’t looked back. I’ve read the set of books at least twice through by now. Her ability to age the quality of the writing with the age of her characters and readers is marvelous. And how about Severus Snape? Snape alone is a figure worthy of classic Russian literature, unbearably tragic and complex in a way that most modern adult fiction just isn’t able to express. (I believe in you, Snape…Dumbledore was right to put his faith in you, right?)

The first time I ever traveled to London just happened to be during the premier of the Prisoner of Azkeban, which I got to see at the Odeon Theater in Leicester Square, opening night. The whole atmosphere was fairly electric, with a pre-show performance by a wild, white-suited organ player, bathed in the subtly morphing rainbow of neon lights of the organ itself, who waved good-bye as he and his calliope sank into the stage as the previews began.

A year later, in Thailand, just as I returned to a bigger city after about a month of rural travel, the opening night of Goblet of Fire arrived and I just couldn’t pass it up. Even after numerous warnings from locals to wear a sweater to the cinema I only wore a long sleeve dress shirt, and oh was I sorry. Apparently adjusting the AC in theaters to frigidaire levels is common all over Thailand. I went to an early evening show, where I think I was the only person over 20, but somehow even among all the ripped jeans, mini skirts and thin cotton Ts I was the only one shivering. Another electric audience though.

Nothing fancy this time out, and in fact I can’t even pick up my copy of the book until Monday because this weekend I have class all day Saturday and Sunday. If anything the forced wait’ll just whet my appetite. It’s hard to believe, but here it is, Deathly Hallows eve. Is this the most hotly anticipated publishing event of my lifetime? Just how many global readers of Harry Potter are there?

Back when Order of the Phoenix came out I was head receiver at my book store. I remember my surprise when the delivery man stopped me from signing for the books & showed my the “drop-cloth” clause. (Keep in mind that we already has to submit confidentiality statements months before, in order to even be allowed to place pre-orders for the books) Essentially, if I couldn’t guarantee that I would obscure the boxes from public and private view, and hide any evidence that the cardboard boxes held the next Potter book, he wasn’t permitted to leave them with our store — just sign right here. Seriously, he stopped me from unloading his cart because I put a box under the receiving table which could be seen through our back door. We had to put a tarp over the 30 or so boxes for the next five days. In the back room of a small independent you can imagine how conspicuous the drop-cloth island would be, but there you have it. Of course my question was, why print the title of the book in 200pt font on all six panels of each box if you’re going for secrecy?

The passion for Potter sure can be blinding. The books are well known loss leaders, meaning that stores sell Potter below their profit margin in order to rope in any ancillary sales that may come with increased foot traffic. Unfortunately, the desire to buy other books just hasn’t materialized during these Potter parties, but I’ve seen Potter 7 already offered for $18.89 some places. Crazy!

The Deathly Hallows already got posted online, of course, basically since Tuesday night. (I’d link to the Motoko Rich article in the NY Times but one needs a subscription to read those things — so look up Rich if you have one) What’s interesting to me isn’t that it happened. I mean, c’mon, growing up by NYC I could see any mainstream movie I wanted at least three or more days before the release date by knowing what street vendors to look for. It’s the official response to the photographic piracy that I want to hear more about.

I am continually trying to impress upon people the innumerable ways there are to monitor our physical and digital fingerprints, and depending on how far Potter’s lawyers want to take it this could be eye-opening. Check out this article about how Digital DNA Could Reveal Identity of Harry Potter Leaker if you’re interested, where she discusses Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) data. Also, Scott’s comment on her post from July 20, 2007 06:05 AM provides more practical insight into how these things work.

Anyhow, I hope you get to enjoy the bittersweet pleasure of reading Potter 7 this weekend, but please don’t tell me anything about it until at least Thursday. It’s hard enough to avoid the spoilers as it is.

from not polish on Flickr, creative commons license

Hats off to Tipper, the PMRC & the MPAA, NISM?

July 4, 2007

I thought I would preempt the inevitable backlash against Robotic Librarian by denying my critics the satisfaction.

What's My Blog Rated?

So far the only naughtiness to appear in my blog is the word “cocaine” and that isn’t even part of a post, just a link in my blogroll. (OK, well, now it is) I thought drug references automatically score at least a PG-13, but I guess I can’t always believe what I read. Plus after the controversy over The Higher Power of Lucky I wouldn’t think I’d be given a free pass. They must be using the 1968 era rules, by which Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 was granted the golden G. I don’t know about you, but 2001 is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen…by the time HAL starts singing for Dave I start to feel like I’m in the Black Lodge. Standards certainly have changed in my day.

Post #4: Data Positioning System

June 23, 2007

chkrres, uploaded to Flickr on Dec. 13 2006 by stallio 

It’s amazing how complicated it can be to locate data.  Almost as complicated is the spectrum of forms which data can take.  As a bookseller, I was often asked about helping someone find a green or a blue book, usually accompanied by a gesture meant to show just how big the book might be.  Or how about the book they heard about on NPR, maybe it starts with a P or a T, perhaps it was profiled three or four days ago, or maybe it was an Oprah book…”Do you have it?”

Figuring out what someone wants is an art, and there should be awards given out to those who are good at it.  At library school, we have classes dedicated to this art, and retailers are always interested in sending staff to seminars to perfect the art as well.  The problem is, most people aren’t really sure what they want in the first place.  “Where do you want to eat?”  “Oh, I dunno, what are you in the mood for?”  …and on and on.  But we love our modern tools of selection, and there’s a reason people respond to “you may also like…”

I can’t tell yet how accurate my observation is, but I feel that as we become more accustomed to abstract self-correcting Internet data searches, we become less focused in real world physical environments.  We rely less on our memory since it’s so easy to del.icio.us it, or save it to the flash drive, bookmark it, blog it, tumblr it….in a way our teachers’ fears about calculators writ large in our collective memory.  Where’s Guy Montag when you need him?

Content management systems continually evolve and improve, however, and with some elegant programming we can create remarkably flexible environments for locating digital data.  But what about physical artefacts, like books?  The more ways we have of ticking off our selections for areas of interest, and for sharing them, the less we will need to remember.  There are many businesses out there that will happily remember for us. 

One option for those of us in the physical world will be vertically integrated Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.  At BookExpo there was a Dutch Company called BGN that held a seminar for industry professionals singing about the virtues of RFID for both information consumers and stewards.  RFID would allow a book to be located in a building no matter how grieviously mis-shelved it is, which would be a boon for book sellers and librarians alike. 

A major stumbling block to implementation is the lack of vertical integration, or recognition by producers, distributors and purchasers alike to work together toward cost-effective implementation at multiple levels.  Tesco stores are starting to use something they call “smart shelves” using RFID, Wal-Mart uses similar technology called an Electronic Product Code (EPC) to track shipments, and KSW-Microtec are developing RFID tags that can be sewn into clothing.  There’s even a website devoted to RFID investing with a cornucopia of links to almost every arm of the technology.  The pro-industry RFID Journal gives a good snapshot of the state of the technology.  None of this, however, is meant to be a glowing endorsement.

A real concern is privacy.  If RFID can be used to pinpoint an item on the shelf, what prevents it from being followed anywhere else?  This article by David Molnar and David Wagner highlights the concerns in a library environment fairly comprehensively, but the issue is much larger than that.  As mentioned in this Glenn Bischoff article on the Mobile Radio Technology website, “RFID tags are ‘remotely and secretly readable,’ a vulnerability that becomes more troubling when the public isn’t aware its personal information might be at risk, said Melissa Ngo, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Identification and Surveillance Project.”  Lee Tien, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney, “described RFID as a ‘very insecure’ technology that’s likely to pass along sensitive information.”

Alarmist, perhaps, and not necessarily in respect to the current limitations of the technology.  My intuition is, though, that the more freedoms we give up outright the harder it is to ask for them back at a later date.  As with every technology, every law, and every compromise between convenience and responsibility, there is a tipping point.  Where do we draw the line?

Surveillance is Fun, uploaded to Flickr on Sept 16, 2006 by eecue

The Voyeur in the Mirror

June 18, 2007

photo of stencil in Amsterdam, taken & edited by me

I stepped out this morning, as I often do, to get some espresso. Helps me focus, and I have a final paper to work on today. With a little forethought, and a little persistence, you could’ve come with me.

As I got myself ready to go outside, you could’ve trained the eye of Google Earth on my apartment. Once I started on my way to the bank, you could’ve joined me with Google Street View. Once at the ATM, you have your choice of either capturing the surveillance feed from their external security cameras, or you could ask the bank for the footage from the ATM itself.


As I walked back to the nearest bus stop, maybe you could find me in the background of a traffic camera ticketing photo; sorry, I’m slightly blurry since I haven’t had my espresso yet. Once on the bus, I may or may not be under surveillance, as the warning so coyly suggests. That’s ok, since once I get off the bus you can find me with Google Street View again, or with one of our native Chicago surveillance cameras. Visuals are overrated anyway, so if you’re really enterprising you can find me by tracing my cell phone GPS identification. And any number of private corporations will happily supply you with my personal history if you’ve got cash money. If all else fails, tomorrow I’ll be driving; there’s that little mapping system in my car, and savvy hackers can help you pinpoint that.

As you may have heard, Time magazine said that you were the person of the year last year. Little old you. Really,though, you have a lot more influence than you think, and not necessarily in the way you want. It goes beyond levels of surveillance that are normally discussed or commonly acknowledged. This blog is watching you, actually, and I get statistics on my readers second by second. If I sign up for Google Analytics or a similar service I could get more detailed data, with practical business applications. (A recently ended program called Spyjax used to collect data on people’s browsing histories while showing them how it was being done, in order to heighten Internet user’s awareness of spyware and the like. Unfortunately he’s closed shop to save bandwidth, so no widget for me.)

Chicago contracts with many different security providers, it’s true, though we are not quite as widely watched as in London, where there’s approximately one camera per fourteen people. But then, maybe we are…

Personal data is, after all, the new black.

There was a movement after the Second World War to require the use of national identification numbers, and the government lost the fight to the will of the people. Big business was behind the push, and considering what happened in the years that followed, the people lost the fight anyway. But the truth is, we are the ones who willingly gave up the ghost.

Business began to require us to submit to them our social security numbers if we wanted to do business, which, unless we willingly provided it to them, they had no right to have access to. But we did, with little resistance. And our government was happy, because they got what they wanted through capitalism, not legislation, and in the sixties restrictions on the sale or distribution of our SS numbers, or, let’s be honest with ourselves, our national identification number, were loosened. For example, in 1961, the IRS was permitted to use the social security number for identification, one of the major stumbling blocks in initial movements toward a national ID.

I would bet you that not only your credit card company and bank have this number, but your super market, your doctor, your insurance companies, your power supply providers, your home rental agency, your car rental agency, and maybe even your Internet provider. When colleges began using using SS numbers for student identification purposes there was a large outcry, but due to the high circulation rate of students, lasting legislation or regulation is still problematic, with an estimated use today on campuses of about 50%. My undergraduate school used SS ID numbers, so it would be printed on anything mailed, presented to, or just related to me during my time there. Hardly a defense of my privacy or security.

What’s interesting to me is that when SS numbers are used so overtly in college documents there is a passionate outcry. Yet when it is a supposedly “private” transaction such as a sale of goods or services, we do not hold to the same standard of personal security. This national temperament is so obvious, if you are looking for it.

Just look at this website portal which links to reality television shows. For every show that encourages us to observe one another in an ostensibly responsible way, such as America’s Most Wanted, there are at least ten whose motives are a little more suspect (Cops, Fear Factor, Maury Pauvich, The White Rapper Show, Elimidate, I Want a Famous Face, Real World, Combat Missions, Extreme Makeover, and House Arrest. See how easy that was?) In a way it’s fun to see ourselves reflected, even if in an unflattering way, through major media outlets. The undercurrent of a modern carny sideshow is unavoidable, and perhaps even ridicule of the poor and disenfranchised. I’ve honestly never sat through a whole episode of Rikki Lake or Jerry Springer because, halfway through, I would always imagine friends of mine who are homeless, or myself (not long enough ago) when I couldn’t afford ramen, or heat for my apartment. What would I be willing to do, if it comes down to it? Honestly, though, reality TV betrays middle class values for the most part. So is it that we want to be celebrities so much that we desire to be under a similar type of scrutiny so as to feel similarly valued?

Ever heard of Za Gaman, or other Japanese game shows?

Or how about Remote Lounge in NYC. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I’m serious. It is exhilarating, adrenaline-inducing and wildly creepy. The whole bar is wired, and the idea is that if you see someone you want to meet or hook up with, just talk to them over your own little personal camera station. As though Londoners were flirting with one another using their CCTV. Here’s a bit of their take on it: “Rather than focus on the “Big Brother” association with the surveillance technology that has been co-opted and adapted to use in the lounge, CEV founders point out that their version of telepresence is used to very different ends then traditional surveillance implementations. First of all, access to the system is mutual, bilateral and consensual – nobody gets to violate anyone else’s privacy in a manner that they would not be subject to themselves. Secondly, the environment is designed to encourage exploration, experimentation and human interaction rather than to control or protect people or property.”

And it’s emblematic of where our heads are at today. The other night I trawled through some Flickr showcases, and searched for people who I haven’t spoken to for years. I didn’t find many of them, but did find about four; there they are for me to quietly watch, a voyeur of their lives today. I went to Youtube, and even found snippets of video from a 1990 talent show at my high school, a talent show I was in! (Sadly the bit with me in a plastic pink skirt playing bongos and singing with my friends about Queen Liliuokalani wasn’t on there.) Pixelated ghosts beckon and beguile me through the ether like my own personalized Videodrome.

The thing is, however disturbing some of this is to me, I am equally awestruck, and humbled by the direction we have taken. There are extremely positive aspects to it, largely in the realm of accountability. Joe Biden, Michael Richards, Don Imus and the like had better be careful. If only we can keep reporters from being embedded with the military and get back to honest reporting… But then, with blogs such as Baghdad Burning, A Star from Mosul, and other amazing front-line blogging of so many people telling real stories and looking for loved ones, maybe we can move away from sponsored reporting. As with many double edged swords, the process can be one of promise and opportunity, so long as we do not abdicate responsibility, and quietly give up the ghost.

Dziga Vertov, from The Man with the Movie Camera

“It called forth nearly all the constituent powers of the century. It revealed the century as it liked to relax when wearing none of its masks.”

Ok, Giedion is talking about patent furniture, but it sounds like the Internet to me. I won’t give up on it for anything, though, and I will fight like Voltaire for it to remain unfiltered. The possibilities are just too great, and if we let it get delimited by force or by censure, only the military and outlaws will be able to take advantage of it.