Schneier on Data and Power

Data and Power is the tentative title of a new book, forthcoming from Bruce Schneier. Here’s more from the post describing the topic of the book:

Corporations are collecting vast dossiers on our activities on- and off-line — initially to personalize marketing efforts, but increasingly to control their customer relationships. Governments are using surveillance, censorship, and propaganda — both to protect us from harm and to protect their own power. Distributed groups — socially motivated hackers, political dissidents, criminals, communities of interest — are using the Internet to both organize and effect change. And we as individuals are becoming both more powerful and less powerful. We can’t evade surveillance, but we can post videos of police atrocities online, bypassing censors and informing the world. How long we’ll still have those capabilities is unclear….

There’s a fundamental trade-off we need to make as society. Our data is enormously valuable in aggregate, yet it’s incredibly personal. The powerful will continue to demand aggregate data, yet we have to protect its intimate details. Balancing those two conflicting values is difficult, whether it’s medical data, location data, Internet search data, or telephone metadata. But balancing them is what society needs to do, and is almost certainly the fundamental issue of the Information Age.

There’s more at the link, including several other potential titles. The topic will likely interest many readers of this blog. It will likely build on his ideas of inequality and online feudalism, discussed here.

Github for Government

What happens when you combine open source software, open data, and open government? For the city of Munich, the switch to open source software has been a big success:

In one of the premier open source software deployments in Europe, the city migrated from Windows NT to LiMux, its own Linux distribution. LiMux incorporates a fully open source desktop infrastructure. The city also decided to use the Open Document Format (ODF) as a standard, instead of proprietary options.

As of November last year, the city saved more than €11.7 million because of the switch. More recent figures were not immediately available, but cost savings were not the only goal of the operation. It was also done to be less dependent on manufacturers, product cycles and proprietary OSes, the council said.

We’ve talked before about how more city governments could follow the open data, open government initiatives of NYC, using tech to benefit citizens rather than (only) creating initiatives to attract tech companies to the area. This shift in emphasis, toward harnessing the power of technology for widespread gains in happiness, is likely to become even more important following recent protests against tech employees in the Bay Area.

Open data and open government will take the principles of open source and use them to make an even bigger social and political impact. One tool from open source that can be adapted for use by these newer movements is Github. We will continue to follow these trends here, and if you are interested in this trend you can also check out Github and Government for more success stories.

Uncle Bob on Public Policy and Software Professionalism

Software developers need to develop their own professional standard, or politicians will do it for them. That’s what “Uncle” Bob Martin argues in this interview starting about 28:00:

Healthcare.gov was awful. That’s a case where a software failure interfered with a public policy. Whether you agree with that policy or not that should scare the hell out of you, because the next public policy may be one much more important and if our software can’t cope with it we could be in a really deep, deep hole.

At some point or another, some software team is going to screw up so badly that there is a disaster of tremendous loss of life. At that point the politicians of the world will decide they have to do something about it. If we are not there with a set of minimum standards that we follow, practices that we follow, if we can’t convince those politicians that we have been behaving professionally and that this was an accident–if we can’t convince them that we weren’t being negligent–then they’ll have no choice but to regulate us. They’ll pass laws about which languages we use, what platforms we can program on, what books we have to read, and so on. It will not be a good outcome. I don’t want to be a civil servant.

The Economy That Is Stanford

Five of the six most-visited websites in the world are here, in ranked order: Facebook, Google, YouTube (which Google owns), Yahoo! and Wikipedia. (Number five is a Chinese-language site.) If corporations founded by Stanford alumni were to form an independent nation, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world, with an annual revenue of $2.7 trillion, as some professors at that university recently calculated. Another new report says: ‘If the internet was a country, its gross domestic product would eclipse all others but four within four years.’

That’s from this London Review of Books piece by Rebecca Solnit. The October, 2012, research report on which the claim is based is here, based on survey data. Solnit’s piece is interesting throughout, including a discussion of parallels and differences between the tech boom and the Gold Rush.

Two Great Talks on Government and Technology

If you are getting ready to travel next week, you might want to have a couple of good talks/podcasts handy for the trip. Here are two that I enjoyed, on the topic of government and technology.

The first is about how technology can help governments. Ben Orenstein of “Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots” discusses Code for America with Catherine Bracy. Catherine recounts some ups and downs of CfA’s partnerships with cities throughout America and internationally. CfA fellows commit a year to help local governments with challenges amenable to technology. One great example that the podcast discusses is a tool for parents in Boston to see which schools they could send their kids to when the city switched from location-based school assignment to allowing students to attend schools throughout the city. (Incidentally, the school matching algorithm that Boston used was designed by some professors in economics at Duke, who drew on work for which Roth and Shapley won the Nobel Prize.)

The second talk offers another point of view on techno-politics: when government abuses technology. Steve Klabnik‘s “No Secrets Allowed” talk from Golden Gate Ruby Conference discusses recent revelations regarding the NSA and privacy. In particular he explains why “I have nothing to hide” is not an appropriate response. The talk is not entirely hopeless, and includes recommendations such as using Tor. The Ruby Rogues also had a roundtable discussing Klabnik’s presentation, which you can find here.

Other recommendations are welcome.

Technology and Government: San Francisco vs. New York

In a recent PandoMonthly interview, John Borthwick made a very interesting point. Many cities are trying to copy the success of Silicon Valley/Bay Area startups by being like San Francisco: hip, fun urban areas designed to attract young entrepreneurs and developers (Austin comes to mind). However, the relationship between tech and other residents is a strained one: witness graffiti to the effect of “trendy Google professionals raise housing prices” and the “startup douchebag” caricature.

New York, on the other hand, has a smaller startup culture (“Silicon Alley”) but much closer and more fruitful ties between tech entrepreneurs and city government. Mayor Bloomberg has been at the heart of this, with his Advisory Council on Technology and his 2012 resolution to learn to code. Bloomberg’s understanding of technology and relationship with movers and shakers in the industry will make him a tough act to follow.

Does this mean that the mayors of Chicago, Houston, or Miami need to be writing Javascript in their spare time? Of course not. But making an effort to understand and relate to technology professionals could yield great benefits.

Rather than trying to become the next Silicon Valley (a very tall order) it would be more efficacious for cities to follow New York’s model: ask not what your city can do for technology, but what technology can do for your city. Turn bus schedule PDF’s into a user-friendly app or–better yet, for many low-income riders–a service that allows you to text and see when the next bus will arrive. Instead of calling the city to set up services like water and garbage collection, add a form to the city’s website. The opportunities to make city life better for all citizens–not just developers and entrepreneurs–are practically boundless.

I was happy to see San Francisco take a small step in the right direction recently with the Open Law Initiative, but there is more to be done, and not just in the Bay Area. Major cities across the US and around the world could benefit from the New York model. See more of the Borthwick interview below:

Inequality, Feudalism, and the Internet

Bruce Schneier speaks at Google on the nascent feudalism in computer security:

Highlights of the talk (some paraphrased and elaborated):

  • There is major inequality in the ability to provide security. Most individual users cannot provide it for themselves. But some big companies can. In fact, the companies are so good that they can provide it for others and bring individuals up to at least a minimal level of security.
  • This is the feudal model of security. Lords provided a minimal living standard in return for labor. They guaranteed that their peasants would survive, and the peasants worked a set number of days or provided a share of their crops as rent.
  • Typically we think of paying for security, but can we stretch the feudal model a bit further? What if users computers (while in screensaver mode or whatever) were used to help with security?
  • When people are afraid they are willing to make interesting bargains.
  • Everyone predicted that automobiles would make transportation faster. No one predicted the suburbs. Second-order social changes are hard to predict.

Collison on Government and the Internet

Patrick Collison of Stripe had a popular post last week that will also be of interest to many readers of this blog. It was entitled “Government and the Internet,” and it lists 11 ways that the internet challenges existing models of governance. Here were a few of my favorites:

6. Governments are more fragile and hence weaker. It’s almost as easy to leak a database as it is a file. It’s much harder for governments to maintain secret structures, and they must contend with the omnipresent risk of a calamitous leak.

7. Governments are more powerful and hence more likely to overreach. Because it’s now far easier to eavesdrop on communications, maintain intrusive databases, etc., it’s much more tempting to do it. Thirty years ago, you needed to adopt extreme GDR-style tactics to eavesdrop on everyone. It was logistically prohibitive, and most governments would probably reconsider when they realized what doing so would actually entail. Today, technology improvements mean that it takes much less effort—and evidently that it feels much less wrong.

11. Legislators lack the conceptual framework to reason effectively about internet and software issues. I think this might be the biggest problem of all. As industry insiders, we have an advantage: we know it’s inane to talk about “getting data back“; we know that metadata and data are often distinctions without differences; we know that large datasets are very hard to anonymize; we know that a large dataset will rarely be used only for its originally intended purpose. We know this simply because we’ve watched these issues play out many times before. Politicians haven’t, and when policy questions hinge on understanding technology, they don’t tend to fare well.

More here.

The Internet: Communication or Transportation?

The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars any more, we have computers we ride in. – Cory Doctorow (transcript)

Is the Internet a communication technology or a transportation technology? What does the answer to this question imply about Internet governance and the future of online liberty?

One thing technology does well is take multiple functions that were previously bound into the same physical process or object and split them into separate objects/subroutines, each of which does its own job so efficiently that the overall object/process works better than it did before. These chunks can also be recombined in new ways to do things that were not previously feasible.

online_communities_2An example is ebooks. Previously the storage, display, and transportation functions of a book were all combined into a single physical unit. The display of one book (its pages and ink) could be repurposed into another only by cutting it up, ransom-note style, or through a lengthy process of recycling. The display was also inseparable from the storage: if the display got wet, the data was marred forever. Transporting the information in the book could only be done by moving its entire bundle of atoms from one place to another

Enter the ebook. A single display can be used for a virtually infinite number of books. Storage is extensible, expandable, and expendable. If you want more, get it. If it breaks, replace it. And when you are ready to add a new edition to your collection it only takes a matter of seconds to transfer the bits.

Actually, the process goes back much further to when the written word disembodied message from messenger. Before this, shooting the messenger was the only primitive backspace key available. Burning books Fahrenheit 451-style can be tragic, but it is quite an improvement over burning bodies.

Is the Internet a simple continuation of this separation-optimization-recombination trend, or is it something more? The Internet is more similar to the spoken/written word jump than it is to the printed book/ebook development, because it allows the separation of consciousness from body. My body can be in almost any physical locations while my consciousness is bound up in a conversation, collaborative project, or game with almost anyone else from almost anywhere else.

In this way, the Internet is more like a transportation technology than it is a communications technology. Governing the roads was a nontrivial task for the early modern state. Then came air travel, which existed for a brief unregulated period before governments learned to exercise their control there. For more on the tension between innovation and regulation in transportation, see herehere, and here.

These early periods are open to rapid innovation, which also means that they permit risk-taking. This risk/opportunity trade-off chosen by state-avoidant peoples. States and their peoples see the opportunity but do not want the risk. Risk can be reduced or it can be hidden; the latter is cheaper and states are better at it, so it is often on that margin that they work to bring their peoples into new avenues of opportunity without fear. But by reducing the downside risk they also take away the upside of innovation.

The Internet is nearing this inflection point, if it has not already passed. It is a dangerous but promising frontier. Would you rather have pioneers as your guide, or big brother watching out for you?

Doublespeak: A Chrome App for the Orwellian Web

tl;dr: Doublespeak is a new Chrome web extension that replaces political doublespeak with plain English. It’s open source so you can help expand the dictionary of terms. 

George Orwell is well-known for introducing the terms “newspeak” and “doublethink” in his novel 1984. A portmanteau of the two, doublespeak, is more common in our modern lexicon–and unfortunately, so is the term that it represents. Another of Orwell’s works, “Politics and the English Language,” explains doublespeak using examples that seem almost quaint today (1946):

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

Although Orwell is gone, the problems he describes are not. If anything, doublespeak has gotten worse in this age of “rendition,” TSA security theater, and PRISM.

Tim Lynch addressed this problem in the context of the War on Terror in 2006:

By corrupting the language, the people who wield power are able to fool the others about their activities and evade responsibility and accountability. Professor William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, notes: “Doublespeak is language that pretends to communicate but really doesn’t. It is language that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable. Doublespeak is language that avoids or shifts responsibility, language that is at variance with its real or purported meaning. It is language that conceals or prevents thought; rather than extending thought, doublespeak limits it.”

It is true, of course, that dishonesty has always been a part of the human experience, but doublespeak is a pernicious variation of dishonesty. Doublespeak perverts the basic function of language, which is to facilitate a common understanding between human beings.

1984-posterLynch goes on to list several examples: “stop-loss” orders as a stand-in for conscription, the replacement of warrants by “national security letters,” and the renaming of Guantanamo prisoner suicides as “asymmetrical warfare.”

A–perhaps the–key point of Orwell’s conception of doublespeak is that words have meaning. Although this runs counter to postmodernism, it points out that language is a key front in the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Witness the recent discussion between a well-spoken University of Wisconsin student (‘Madiha’) and an on-campus recruiter for the NSA:

NSA RECRUITER 1: I’m focusing on what our foreign intelligence requires of [us], so…you can define ‘adversary’ as [an] enemy and clearly, Germany is not our enemy, but would we have foreign national interest from an intelligence perspective on what’s going on across the globe? Yes, we [would].

MADIHA: So by “adversary”, you actually mean anybody and everybody. There’s nobody, then – by your definition – that is not an adversary. Is that correct?

NSA RECRUITER 1: That is not correct.

Doublespeak has the power of the state behind it, which includes a great deal of technological sophistication. Until recently, I was more optimistic about the power of the internet to oppose conventional sources of political power. Although the recent Snowden revelations have diminished my confidence in technology as a political force, we can still use it as a tool to take back language.

To that end, I have developed a simple tool that you can use to counter doublespeak in your web viewing experience. It known as Doublespeak and is available as a Chrome web extension. Right now it has a small dictionary of three terms that it replaces, but can easily be extended for more. The code is also open-source on Github. When you install the extension, clicking its icon in the browser window will open a duplicate of the current page in a new tab, but with doublespeak terms replaced by their plain English equivalents.

Here are a few examples of the Doublespeak extension at work on these three pages:

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Before

Before

After

After

Obviously it does not replace the text in images, but I think that makes the last example all the more striking. The extension should respond to titleized words, but some other special cases (e.g. all uppercase) are not handled in the current version (0.1).

If you have suggestions for new additions to the dictionary or other features, please let me know.