Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wired and Tapped

I chanced to overhear parts of a conversation at work recently about the difficulties of software licensing control in the absence of reliable enforcement, and it pushed me toward thinking yet again about WikiLeaks, privacy, security - and of course, information. It's been a generation or so since the trend of magazines and futurist books using terms like "Information Age", when we were thinking about what it might mean to have encyclopedias, shopping, and entertainment online, and it seems that we're starting only now to appreciate the tenebrous side of what was then, for many, a somewhat shinier vision. A couple of years ago, Scientific American assembled a graphic "History of Privacy", and some of its entries that relate to this age can almost seem to be spotlit even in the context of things that took place only since its publication.

One banner year is 1968, when Richard Nixon was elected, and wiretapping guidelines were codified. Personal computers were about seven years away, but people were concerned about computer tapes holding arbitrary - and secret - information like transcripts of wiretaps of arbitrary citizens. Given Watergate and the passage of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), those concerns certainly appeared to be justified repeatedly. The warrantless wiretaps that garnered news coverage in the Bush era were seen as a continuation and refinement of that theme.

In the Eighties, the infancy of cellular phones and the Web introduced the notion that both communication and information were more diffuse than before; it was possible to communicate in real time, to anyone, from arbitrary locations, either point-to-point or point-to-hub in the case of a computer and a web site. But it was in the 15 years between the first cases of identity theft and the founding of Facebook that it was apparent that all personal information was only as secure as the potential distance between any person and some recording device, whether a webcam, a microphone, or a bypasser making a blog entry from a smart phone.

So what does it mean for Jay Rosen to say "[PFC Manning leaked to WikiLeaks because] the watchdog press died"? Or for political scholar Evgeny Morosov to say "[Julian Assange] believes that one way to achieve justice is to minimize the power of governments to do things that their citizens do not know of and may not approve of if they do... citizens... are entitled to go about their own business; it's the government that is the main target." Perhaps what it means is that we are lurching toward a new, more armchair watchdog press which by preference trolls Twitter for leads rather than going to talking heads.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year profile of Facebook founder Zuckerberg included the conclusion that he "built [Facebook] because he wanted the rest of us to have his [social life]." And the philosophy inherent in that social life, to some extent, incorporates the spirit of a comment by Google honcho Eric Schmidt, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." And by "doing", you imagine people like Schmidt and Zuckerberg meaning something you'd tweet - or elect not to - and the sum of your life's tweets are the summary of your life. And if, for instance, you elected not to blog or tweet about an embarrassing relative, for instance, the implicit assumption would be that you have something to hide. Which, of course, would apply as well if you happened to be gay, and didn't care to make it public knowledge, or at least global public knowledge - and could result in a tragedy like that of Tyler Clementi.

And so we have blurred considerably the line between watchdog and gossip, between sensationalist and whistleblower. And it appears that we aren't quite ready for the fine points of judgment associated with that instant publicity capability, either as producers or consumers.