Google Firestarters: The war on personal privacy has barely begun
Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the fifth in the series of Google Firestarters events for planners and digital media folk. Cory Doctorow, the renowned science fiction novelist, journalist, technology activist, and co-editor of Boing Boing was on intense, rapid fire, glorious form. I began with every intention of tweeting ironic witticisms from the event but was so drawn in by his manic and impassioned delivery that it was impossible to do anything but listen intently for fear of missing something.
The talk was emotively titled ‘The War on General Purpose Computing’ or as the blurb would have it ‘Cory will be talking about how in the coming decades, restriction and regulation of general computing could threaten to undermine the capabilities and security of not just communications, but many other corners of modern human society’.
Where to start?
Clearly his passion is digital copyright or rather some of the absurdities around copyright law that have tried to inhibit copying (not the rights and wrongs of copying, per se). At least that’s where he started. He rapidly moved on to issues of privacy, censorship, surveillance and the attempt by certain organisations (usually in the entertainment industry) to control how our personal computers actually run. One example cited a DVD release that contained a small piece of ‘malware’ that once loaded onto your PC would a) not allow you to copy/unscramble the content but b) carried a simple prefix that rendered the program invisible to the operating system.
This might not seem like such a big deal until you consider the wider implications. Firstly, how do we all feel about an invisible program that prevents our own computers doing what we ask them to do? (Ctrl C anyone?) Secondly, how would you feel about that prefix getting into the hands of certain organisations, like the press, the Government, Social networks to use for their own purposes? Cory went on to cite the Government of Bahrain who had used similar invisible code to use a PC’s web cam to ‘spy’ on their citizens’ key strokes and computer activity! By now we were all getting slightly edgy. (I didn’t get this spooked at the ISBA conference. The folks there were getting their heads around Facebook – not fundamental issues of surveillance by nefarious regimes!)
He then brought it down to a more personal level with a further example of the hearing aid. We are all of the Walkman or iPod generation so he urged us to get used to the idea that we will all need hearing aids at some stage. But these aids will be little computers that we will be inserting into our bodies. Would we feel confident doing this if we didn’t personally control every aspect of how they performed? Or worse, what if their functionality could be over-ridden by some invisible malware to interact with the operating system of a passing 747 jumbo?
Cory’s passion clearly comes from a fundamental frustration with the way that anti-piracy laws have been passed without much thought; sometimes not by people who understand technology, but usually by people who understand policy or are elected geographically, like MPs in the UK might be. He agonized that in places like Canada (or indeed anywhere!) experts on things like agriculture, health, law etc discuss the country’s problems– and copyright is an afterthought, when it shouldn’t be given how many connected devices we have and will have on this planet.
This certainly got most people thinking – if you know of countries where they already block access or they force companies to give government control over data (think as far as RIM and legal interception of users’ Blackberry data in India, not just China’s firewall), it’s not a big leap.
Cory himself concluded the evening nicely with this thought ‘Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policies for them; to examine and terminate the software processes that run on them; and to maintain them as honest servants to our will.”
I’ve barely scratched the surface with this post – but needless to say it was a fantastic piece of thought provocation, albeit slightly scary and dystopian.
Scriberia’s illustration for Cory Doctorow at Google Firestarters