Hello! Thank you for listening to me speak about privacy and cryptocurrency adoption at the MIT Business of Blockchain conference. Sorry for the talk being billed as “The Path to Adoption: 3 Types of Product-Market Fit” and then being messier and more tentative than that.
I wrote the following post for my cyberpunk newsletter, Exolymph. I’m cross-posting it here because the topic is relevant to other subjects that I’ve discussed on this blog.
Keep Your Head Down
Reading about operational security has turned my mind toward privacy rights. Opsec tactics are concerned with shielding information from enemy access — mostly through rigorous, consistent caution. As the Animal Liberation Front put it in one of their direct action guides, “True security culture requires a clear head, a rational mind, and personal self-control.” The assumption made by savvy opsec practitioners is that all data will be compromised eventually. Therefore, they aim to minimize the inevitable consequences.
I used to disregard privacy. My attitude was a classic: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide!” (a viewpoint refuted very well by Robin Doherty). The problem is that even people who are acting ethically can run afoul of the law or be persecuted by the authorities. Consider how the FBI treated civil rights activists in the 1960s. Current mass surveillance by the NSA and similar government bodies is equally worrisome, as is the treatment of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning. I’m not naive enough to think that this behavior will stop. People do anything that they are physically or technically capable of doing in order to access power — especially state agents.
I’m still not convinced that privacy should be a guaranteed legal right, or if so, to what extent. The best way to restrict your own information is simply to be secretive — stay quiet and maintain the impression of insignificance. After all, the vast majority of day-to-day privacy compromises are self-inflicted, simply because most people don’t care. That’s how Facebook and other social networks manage to compile detailed dossiers on their users.
So, what’s the essential takeaway here? I’m not sure. It’s interesting to ponder the consequences of a post-privacy society, until you realize that we already live in one. The results are quite mundane. Feels normal, right?
In the wake of the Samantha Bielefeld debacle — which, to summarize various Twitter threads, involved a man posing as female tech blogger in order to stir up drama and possibly make money — I’m reflecting on anonymity online. (It’s not important that you be familiar with the whole SB thing in order to read this post, but if you’re interested you can learn more here, here, here, and here, in addition to the link in the first sentence.)
It benefits me tremendously that I’m able to reference my personal Facebook account on this website, that I’m able to post selfies and meet people in person. If I were in the situation that Samantha claimed to be, and I needed to conceal my identity so my bosses wouldn’t object to my internet life, it would be harder to be trusted. Maybe when I chose to criticize popular men, people would wonder, “Is this another scam artist? What’s her ulterior motive?” (Although I suppose this problem doesn’t afflict Taylor Swift’s infosec account.) Being able to reveal my face makes it easier for me to be taken at face value.
I feel weird about this. I’m not a huge privacy advocate — we don’t have any inherent right to conceal information about ourselves and insignificance is the best protection — but I’m also not a moron, and I recognize that society’s preexisting power systems determine who gets to conceal themselves and who must be open in order to be believed. The main reason I don’t have to worry about demonstrating my genuine legal identity is that I’m not discussing anything controversial, and I’m a middle-class white girl. (Imagine if I wrote about feminism, or video games!) There are risks, but minimal enough that I don’t worry about it.
I’m guess all I’m saying is that structural inequalities are a bummer, and the dynamics of anonymity reveal that. What an exciting and tötally nëw revelation!
I pulled quotes representing some essential insights from Martin Weigert’s article on how smart wearables (specifically the Apple Watch) will accelerate mass surveillance. It’s arguable that the tech press has done an about-face on this issue. As Weigert remarks:
“[M]any of the people who have expressed their concerns about systematic mass surveillance now eagerly line up for an Apple Watch [even though] a universal wearable like that is one more major step towards a world of constant and ubiquitous surveillance.”
Perhaps people trust Apple enough that they’re not worried? Tim Cook is explicitly pro-privacy and Apple has been decent about keeping user information safe. But it’s more likely that people don’t actually care about day-to-day surveillance. I mean, I’m apathetic personally, just not politically.
IMO, mass surveillance by the public of the public would be a good thing. Everyone watching everyone would be okay if all the data was publicly available and publicly negotiated. However, the world where people with power surveil little-suspecting citizens and privately hoard the reams of data is terrifying. Corporations and government bodies don’t have a good track record re: human rights.
To be clear, this is not an abstract future. We already live in a plutocratic oligarchy of citizen data, or rather we live in sets of overlapping plutocracies and oligarchies. Google shares with the CIA and shrugs off the tiny PR hit whenever journalists try to remind people ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Weigert gives an example of how law enforcement agencies could use the body data that wearables collect:
“A person for whom the algorithm finds slightly suspicious online behaviour, and whose body values indicate a high level of unusual stress? Flagged for closer examination.”
Lest you scoff at the proposed ubiquity of wearables, Weigert reminds the naysayers who expect the Apple Watch to fail:
“While smartwatches do not seem essential from the get-go to many, the history of the digital age taught us that we usually suck at evaluating the future perceived or actual value of new technology.”
The Apple Watch is here, possibly here to stay, and there’s a high likelihood that we should be worried. This device is not the first of its kind, and surely not the last.
Now that I’m an adult, there are some topics I can’t write about. Not because I don’t have the knowledge, although there are plenty of areas in which I’m ignorant, but because things are too personal. For instance, my public self doesn’t have a sex life, except for a few humorous offhand remarks (or reflections on the past). I don’t write gossip about my friends and acquaintances, as much fun as that would be. Basically, I’m not journaling anymore. Instead, I’m journalisming. Sort of. I’m learning how to report instead of relate. To be clear, “learning” is the operative word.
I used to write about romance, sex, and friendship all the time, back when Tumblr was my primary venue. I also wrote more about mental health than I do now, in part because the primary thing going on in my life was depression and attempts to tackle it. Currently my intellectual pursuits occupy the foreground, whatever I’m reading and thinking about. Work, employment—separate items, unfortunately—marketing, media: these are my main concerns.
It’s an odd feeling. I don’t necessarily want to be the center of my writing anymore, unless that serves the piece (as in this case), but writing is still how I process. Recording emotions and new ideas is how I deal with them. I want to maintain a personal “voice”, to write like a friend, to be candid, to have space for silliness and self-conscious tangents. But I don’t want to expose so much that I’ll be uncomfortable or hurt the people close to me.
Obviously this is a shift still in progress, so who knows if it’ll be permanent or even significant. Self-analysis is faulty, but I can’t help doing it anyway.
PS, the title is obviously (at least I hope it’s obvious) a reference to The Sound of Music: