Jim's Polka

The life of a former software engineer, now a law student

Friday, April 15, 2005

CFP 2005: Opening Debate

I'm going to preface my summary post titles with CFP 2005 so people who don't care can skip them. I'll try not to make these too long. This post will be the hardest to do that for.

Although this was billed as a debate, it didn't really work out that way. Each speaker had some interesting things to say, but they only overlapped a little. The general theme was sousveillance, which is basically the idea of putting the cameras into the hands of ordinary people, instead of letting governments and businesses do all the watching.

The first speaker was Steve Mann, or as I think of him, cyborg guy. (Maybe even crazy cyborg guy, although he seems pretty nice.) He had a camera attached to his face the whole time he was there. (Literally. I'm not joking about the cyborg thing.) He thinks that it's just a matter of time before everyone is keeping a record of their daily lives, given how the hardware for it is getting cheaper all the time. He compared it to when you sign a contract. If you sign a contract, you expect to keep a copy of it. Similarly, why should everyone else get to keep a copy of the record of your daily life, but not you? He believes that the process will start as an assist to the visually impaired and will progress to the point that it becomes normal for everyone, to the point that you don't even notice it. I'm not sure whether that will happen in my lifetime, but it's not too hard to imagine, if the cameras (and storage media) get small enough and cheap enough. We're already headed in that direction with cameraphones.

Next was David Brin. His talk was similar to what he'd said the night before at the reading I went to. He's the kind of person who rants a bit, so he's a little hard to summarize. He started off talking about the fundamental characteristic of Americans. The result of the most successful propaganda program in America. Suspicion of authority. You see it in every movie for the last several decades. And that's a good thing. That suspicion leads to criticism, which makes things better. He thinks that what we really need is not to focus on privacy (heretical, given the setting), but to focus on openness. The government is going to be watching, so amateurs should be watching right back. The worst thing about Big Brother's viewscreen wasn't that he was watching. It was that nobody could watch him back.

After that, was Latanya Sweeney. She talked about a project that her lab has been working on. They looked on the Internet for publicly available camera feeds. These are more common than you might think. A lot of the time, people put a network-enabled camera on the network and than don't give any thought to security. Anyway, they used some of those feeds to analyze people-traffic through some heavily trafficked areas, in particular Times Square. They then used that analysis to predict the usual number of people they'd expect to see at a given time. The idea was that they could detect a bioterror attack based on a lower than expected number of people passing by the camera.

This summary is going on a little long, so I'll rush through the next two people. First, there was Ivan Szekely. He talked about the changes in ideas of privacy in Eastern Europe since the fall of communism. The state has lost it's control over people's information and citizens have gained it. Accountability has moved in the opposite direction.

Finally, there was Simon Davies from Privacy International. He stood up to remind us why privacy is important. The more we're watched, the more that we change. So, you have to ask whether we want to create a world where you have to watch your behavior at all times because someone's probably watching you. He wants to see more from government to protect privacy.

Alright. That's all for tonight. I'll pick this up tomorrow.