Innocent: nothing to fear

So the whole NSA thing kicked off and the entire internet is full of commentary, as you’d expect.

As with any new piece of news, HUGE REVELATION is followed by some detailed picking apart. (Right now, the biggie seems to be the “what does ‘direct access’ to servers actually mean?” – next up, “Why did Edward Snowden identify himself as the whistleblower?”).

The interesting thing about this debating is that although it’s clearly a good thing to pick apart potentially sensationalist bits of broad-brush news “YOU ARE BEING SPIED ON” and focus on the detail “WHAT DOES ‘SPYING’ MEAN IN THIS CONTEXT?”, there is also – I think – a danger that if the focus becomes too specialised you not only lose audience interest and impetus as the detail is debated by experts in that particular niche field, but you also potentially lose sight of the big picture.

This picture seems to me to be the single most important thing, and it echoes Snowden’s stated reasons for coming forward:

I don’t want to live in a society that
does these sorts of things

This isn’t about the detailed debate as to whether this kind of surveillance helps or hinders terrorism, this isn’t about what “metadata” is in this context, it isn’t even about where particular allegiances lie. It’s about the flavour of the place we want to create as a civilised, intelligent and compassionate society.

In debating the importance of privacy with friends, the most common response is this: “I’m innocent. I have nothing to fear”, and it is almost exactly these words that the British government is using in pretty much every interview I’ve heard about NSAgate. “British citizens have nothing to fear” said Malcolm Rifkind on Radio 4 today: sub-text: “If you’re guilty, fear. If you’re not, fear not”.

Really? So you’re happy sitting in a pub chatting to your friends for a total stranger to pull up a chair and listen in to you talking about the fact you fancy the barman? You’re ok with someone borrowing your phone and looking at the last ten numbers you dialled? You have no problem at all with someone totally unknown friending you on Facebook, or reading your diary? You’re innocent, right, so all of this is ok to you? “It’s just metadata” you say – “the Government doesn’t know what we said, they just know we you said it to, and that’s ok”.

Well look, here’s what the EFF says about metadata:

> They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
> They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
> They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
> They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
> They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.

The thing is, the surveillance state that can be developed today is abusable in a way that is entirely unprecedented. Is there anyone out there who can genuinely claim that they have never tweeted or posted a comment, visited a website, sent a text, received an email which – if taken out of context – couldn’t be used in nefarious ways by the next Government or employer who wasn’t quite so happy that you went on that anti-war march ten years ago? I don’t think so. The “innocence” of your actions is in the eyes of the beholder; this innocence is contextual and changing with time and with circumstance. Blanket, panopticon-like surveillance of the kind described by Snowden sets a wholly dangerous precedent.

The bigger point is surely this: do we want to live in a society where someone is watching all the time?

However “innocent” you are, I don’t think you do.

What to do about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook.

On the one hand:

…this is the single most dynamic, engaged and engaging platform for user generated content that there has ever been. 500 million people, converging on a single web application. Wait, read that again – 500 MILLION people. That’s a noticeable chunk of the entire global population.

That’s a totally, utterly and completely insane amount of user penetration. And when you use it (I don’t, much, but I watch my wife and her friends and I dip in to see what is happening every so often) – it’s obvious why. Facebook is slick, it’s user-focused and it’s all about the connections. Critical mass + friends + photos? Of course it works.

On the other hand:

…Facebook is regularly cited – actually, cited is way too gentle a word – screamed about – for being EVIL. Reasons vary, but they tend to focus on what is seen as a hugely lax approach to privacy. Actually, it’s layer upon layer of laxness – from totally baffling privacy controls to requiring a PhD to delete your account to the latest “facetracking by default” functionality. It’s a general “don’t give a ****” thing, it appears.

When it isn’t privacy, it’s concerns about “domination of the web” (particularly now things such as the Like Button are out in the wild) or how closed their so-called “Open Graph” is in reality, or the possibility that Zuckerberg did something wrong once or – well, go read “10 reasons to delete your Facebook account” for some more.

And here’s the tension, beautifully summed up by Jason Scott in a stunningly entertaining rant about Facebook. Cover your body organs if you’re of a sensitive disposition:

People aren’t just eating Facebook’s Shit Sherbet of overnight upgrades, of lack of guarantees and standards, of enveloping tendrils of web standard breaking. They are shoveling it down. They’re grabbing two crazy handfuls of Facebook every minute of every day when they’re not forced to walk down a hallway or look up from their phones or ipads or laptops or consoles. They’re grabbing buckets of Facebook and finding ways to shove it down with one hand while pawing around for a second bucket.  People have bought the fuck in.

So what to make of this? For someone like me – a generalist who straddles two very different groups of people – the tension is very often felt. I have geeks in one ear talking about open standards, pushing for privacy controls and hoping upon hope that the Semantic Web will get here one day. In the other ear I hear people who couldn’t give a monkeys about open standards, probably have “password” as their password, and seem remarkably relaxed about posting pictures of themselves hunched over a bucket bong. With these people there’s no denying the pleasure, the engagement, the rich content and the opportunities that Facebook offers.

On thing seems sure: rant as much as you like, but there’s no escaping. Facebook – in fact, big companies of all sizes – will dominate the internet landscape for a long time to come, and they’ll always find success.  There’s a reason why there is no alternative to Twitter, no alternative to Google and no alternative to Facebook: these are the places where everyone goes. It’s horrible, and uncomfortable, and we all wish people weren’t so terribly dumb, but the fact of the matter is – people choose social, and they do it at the expense of – well, lots of things: privacy, openness, safety. The utility of these tools is easy to underestimate in the general scheme of things, especially if you’re a geek – but utility, ease, sociability are the non-geek world’s open standards, the defining shape of their lives.

This seems to be the sting in the tail of large-scale social web activity. In order for it to be compelling, it requires a large social graph. In order for a large social graph to work, you normally need a big company or concern behind the scenes. Where there’s a big company, there’s money. Where there’s money, ethics almost always start being eroded. Bang.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that everyone is going to delete their Facebook account (when they can work out how) just yet. Learning, awareness, going into this with eyes (yours, or your institutions’) seems to be the only possible answer to the question in the title. A moderate, not polarised approach.

Clearly I’m getting old.