Torture, Ownership, and Privacy

The Senate Intelligence Committee released hundreds of pages (soon available as a book) detailing acts of torture committed by the CIA.

“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism. And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure – torture’s ineffectiveness – because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.”

Reading about the torture committed by U.S. citizens is appalling and disturbing. I can only hope that real change comes from this, but am not optimistic considering that it happened despite infighting within the CIA, despite previously stating in 1989 to the Senate that torture is counterproductive, yet it still was committed and on a large scale. How many war crimes does the U.S. have to commit before it is charged?

For something distracting and enjoyable to look at, Twitter image bots interact and great creations result. My favorite, CommonsBot, takes creative-commons-sourced images and tweets them at other bots, like pixelsorter or imgshredder, which then transform the images. As my Twitter feed has a tendency to get depressing, or too journalist/news-based at times, these images are a great break in the madness.

image of musical score distorted musical score

In case you didn’t know, essentially everything in the world is politicized. Clocks, those objects on the wall, on your phone, on your wrist, on your microwave. They’re political, especially if you live in Bolivia:

“There are no “universal” laws of time. It’s all up for debate, and it has been for a long time.”

So clocks are political; the result of years of colonial input. What about statistics? Surely numbers remain impartial? Alas.

the qualitative descriptions used by early modern states to keep track of their subjects and wealth eventually merged with the mathematical theory of probability to bring it about.

Terms like GDP and other statistics are politicized, and many aren’t even standardizable across EU member states. Stock images too, are political (perhaps less surprisingly).

detailed illustrated scrollworkdistorted scrollwork

As big data hypes itself into the national consciousness, people are paying more attention to privacy and data ownership (or at least the media is)… Uber is a fine example, with scandals over the last month about how well they control access to data. Sociologists Zeynep Tufekci and Brayden King discuss the need for additional regulations of data in the light of the fact that we can’t trust Uber:

“We already regulate sensitive data, ranging from health records to financial information. We must update oversight for 21st-century data as well. When we’re picked up on a rainy street corner, it’s not enough to know where the car is going. We need to know where our data is going, and how it’s used.”

When it comes to big data, it isn’t clear who owns the data elements after they become a part of big data. One example is in farming, where Agriculture-Technology Providers are ushering farmers into the era of big data, in the hopes of reducing “uncertainties inherent to farming. However, farmers are hesitant to lose control of their data and want assurances before they sign contracts.” As farming is guided more by big data, the role of automation and quantitative measures on how crops are grown, as well as how that impacts the legacy of family farms, remains to be seen.

“Like many farmers Mr. Tom is wary of what big company might own his data. He shares some information with Monsanto, for example, but is careful of others’ policies around data retention. He also worries about how computation is going to change the farm he hopes to leave to his children.”

Data ownership seems to be one of the prime issues of our times, and its evolution will be interesting to observe, especially in as things like learning analytics are greatly emphasized. Do the students have any right to their data as it is used to assess learning outcomes? Is it governed by FERPA? Who owns the content in Learning Management Systems? More heavy questions I won’t try to answer.

man saluting in black and white photodistorted photo of man saluting

Aside from ownership of data, ownership of your web presence is just as important. It isn’t easy for everyone to maintain, but owning your web presence can be as easy as periodically googling yourself to see what comes up, or using only name-based usernames on services that you want yourself to be discoverable on. For those of us with websites, projects like the Domain of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington are fascinating.

“A Domain of One’s Own is a project at the University of Mary Washington that, starting Fall 2013, will provide all incoming freshmen with their own domain names and Web space. Students will have the freedom to create subdomains, install any LAMP-compatible software, setup databases and email addresses, and carve out their own space on the web that they own and control.”

I would’ve loved to have had something like that in college, but at the same rate, I’m sure it leads to a lot of abandoned webspaces for some alumni. The indieweb project is also a strong proponent of owning your online identity, as demonstrated in this video geared toward developers.

Ownership of your data, ownership of your web identity, these require what is being called first-person technologies. Technologies created, and owned, by the people that use them (rather than Google, Facebook, or others).

“We won’t get back our privacy, or make real progress toward real personal freedom, until we develop and deploy first person technologies for everybody. Without them our democracies and marketplaces will also continue to be compromised, because both require those three virtues of privacy.”

The three virtues of privacy are secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy.

stock archival photo of a shipship photo distorted to look like waveforms

Privacy is so, so important in today’s world. There are companies whose sole purpose is to collect information about you, create profiles of you, and sell it to advertisers or whoever is willing to pay for it. They’re called data brokers. There is a way out, though, by opting out of these services. One of the hardest parts of maintaining privacy and security on the web is that the tools available to protect yourself are very difficult to use. Privacy mechanisms that trick you into making your posts public by default, or making it difficult or impossible to change the settings of something which has been posted, pages that urge you to complete your profile by adding your location to your profile. Logical and usable computer security is something that needs more attention, and thankfully, seems to be getting some.

Some use cases for usable computer security are compiled by everyone’s favorite infosec heroine, Taylor Swift, and Eleanor Saitta takes it further by examining specific use cases by high-risk users, such as a woman at a domestic violence shelter.

Archive photo of a ship, duplicateddistorted image of duplicated ship photo

Aside from data brokers, one of the few ways that websites make money is by selling ads. (Other ways include direct-funding models like Patreon, or subscription/paywall models used by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and many other sites.) Thinker Seth Godin offers a simple way to think about the effectiveness of digital advertising–would you miss them if they weren’t there? Most people I know use AdBlock Plus, thus answering Godin’s question–no, in fact, a web without ads is preferable to a web with ads as they currently pervade our online experiences. “By downloading the plug-in AdBlock Plus (ABP) on a massive scale, users do vote with their mice against the growing invasiveness of digital advertising” Its developer is called Eyeo:

“Eyeo GmbH is filling a vacuum created by the incompetence and sloppiness of the advertising community’s, namely creative agencies, media buyers and organizations that are supposed to coordinate the whole ecosystem (such as the Internet Advertising Bureau.)”

An alternative form of advertising, and perhaps one that you might miss if it weren’t there, is something that tumblr is experimenting with: A buy button that appears on posts from certain websites (Etsy and Kickstarter among them). I haven’t seen it show up yet, but it seems like a really great idea to have a non-intrusive, practical form of “advertising” on the web. Another idea is Google’s Contributor, which as of now is an invitation-only experiment that involves paying a few dollars a month to remove ads from participating websites (like Mashable, the Onion, and imgur). I’m sitting on the waitlist for now, because as someone who spends this amount of time on the internet, it’s worth at least a few dollars a month. Plus, I like the idea of paying money for several sites, rather than a pricey subscription that gets me access only to one website that may not be my main source of news (sorry, New York Times).

black and white photo of a sculpturesculpture photo distorted as barcodes

These days, passwords are still a primary mode of ensuring privacy and security on the web. As they’re a constant as we navigate across various websites, they start to acquire lives of their own. Ian Urbina delved into those secret lives in an interactive piece for the New York Times Magazine that includes a fascinating story of password recovery in the first days after 9/11. I recommend the videos that accompany the piece. Passwords have a unique power, being secret codes that we type dozens of times a day (or week). One man decided to use these secret codes as a form of self-help, to help himself forgive others, or quit smoking.

While there are numerous efforts afoot nowadays to do away with passwords, they’ve been around for ages. Another essay details the work that goes into outguessing passwords--and how easy it has gotten for many crooks, crackers, and phishers. He gives tips for creating a secure password, but surprisingly doesn’t mention using a password manager (I use LastPass).

comic that reads: when we die, the best part of us lives on. The metadata.

And for our music this week, here are a couple songs by Mapei. She reminds me of Laura Mvula, and her song Believe is stunning.

You may have heard her song Don’t Wait, and she also has a remixed version featuring Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment.

Thanks for reading!