Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Unreality Of The Surveillance State

I noted sadly today the loss of Groklaw. The legal news blog, which has been a popular standby of the legal community for the better part of ten years, is shutting its doors as of today.

The blogs owner Pamela Jones said in a rather impassioned statement today "But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible."


I've always had a strong sense of our utter lack of privacy online, at least in the parochial sense most of us seem to think of. But I've been online far longer than the average person, having gotten my first dialup "shell" account 25 years ago.

Everything you say or do online can, in theory, be captured stored and analyzed till the cows come home. Given the nature of modern IP networks this is even more pervasive than we realize too. Much in the way of voice traffic from "traditional communications" such as cellphones and landlines ends up being sent as VOIP information over existing internet infrastructure by backbone service providers. So your voice call on Verizon or AT&T can at some point end up as internet traffic, at least some of the time based on the needs of carrier networks and their peering arrangements.

It is the theoretical nature of this reality though that has always given me a reasonable level of comfort. It has always been quite clear that the sheer volume of data traveling over IP networks makes actual surveillance quite difficult.

However, given enough technical resources, such individualized surveillance is indeed possible and has been for some time. Edward Snowden's revelations of the length and scope of these capabilities, while an employee for NSA contractor Booz-Allen-Hamilton, makes it clear that this is so.

The capacity and sophistication of these resources is ALWAYS going up as the cost of them goes down. This truth is a mere function of how technology works. So it is safe to assume that we are nearing (or perhaps have already reached) a point where anyone can be easily and perhaps more disturbingly AUTOMATICALLY profiled and targeted for surveillance.

Thinking about this gives me more than a little pause personally. Looking back over the course of my online existence I can think of a myriad of things that would, at least in theory, have me on some government analysts radar. These are just a handful of them...

  • I have in the past, and occasionally continue to, communicate with individuals outside the U.S.
  • I have blogged and been formally published writing about privacy and surveillance.
  • I have privately consulted on and directly rendered forensics analysis of computers and networks.
  • I have written scathing op/ed's on the state of copyright and IP law.
  • I have interviewed and championed the cause of one person, who in the past was involved in the largest copyright infringement case in history up to that point.
  • I have used encryption, proxies, IP blocklists, and all sorts of other methods to communicate online.

According to the surveillance guidelines and justifications outlined in the now public PRISM program, I have ticked several of the boxes necessary for *ALL* of my internet traffic to be scrutinized automatically by the NSA, without even the need of a FISA order. Whether this is actually occuring or not, I cannot say for certain.

But I have little evidence to the contrary telling me that I should doubt this is happening.

What does this mean? What does this mean for me personally?

I am not by nature a person given to paranoia. I know at least one person who has taken these realities to heart to such an extreme, that they are now attempting to live entirely "off the grid", outside of all systems including simple and pedantic ones we take for granted daily. As a result this persons life has now utterly imploded.

Me? I still have bills to pay and people that rely on me, so I'm not interested in taking any extreme precautions. Moreso, I'm not interested in taking any precautions at all.

Pamela Jones in her impassioned exit post on Groklaw implied that she felt her very humanity was as stake. Indeed we have countless lessons throughout history that a surveillance state does have a chilling effect on ones humanity. But, in a connected society such as ours, the double edged sword that is the internet is really too important an aspect of our human connectedness now to shy away from.

It's a pandora's box to be sure, but one we must dive into and accept the realities of lest it become the master of us all.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Need vs Want. An important distinction...

This little blog rant all started with a playful post on a social network of the following question earlier today.

"Here's a fun idea! Finding someone to date is finding someone to reliably and safely have sex with. True or False? Discuss!!"

Though the obvious answer is True (every bit of sociology and psychology I've ever studied seems to confirm this irrefutably) boy did this question shake the tree LOL.

But that was the point. I wanted to see what sort of justifications people would have to claim it was a false statement. More specifically women seemed to take issue with it, but I'm of a mind (from a lifetime of experience, coupled with having been raised by a considerably smart psychology degree wielding mother) that women so innately buy into double standards about their own sexuality, that many of them can easily fail to grasp the truth of this. And I think it is rather sad and unnecessary.

I like coming at ideas and thoughts from various directions. Though at times this can confuse (and also annoy) people, I feel that it is for me a valuable tool to deconstruct my thoughts.

The more difficult a thought idea or concept is, the more resources you should allocate towards it. Makes sense right? But as is the case with most things in life answers are often pretty easy. The real trick is asking the right questions.

Most people would say that, as a for instance, quantum mechanics is difficult. And perhaps in a sense this is true, but only in a sense. One of the "gatekeepers" of the physical sciences is that nasty thing many people find extremely hard to grasp, Calculus. But calculus can be mastered by nearly anyone, given enough time and resources. So I'd say the things we often call "difficult" are really just resource intensive and not actually difficult at all.

The biggest difficulty we face as human beings is really ourselves, and by extension each other. Almost anyone can set aside their emotions (except perhaps frustration) and learn calculus, or molecular biology regardless of their IQ, because at their core these are not emotional pursuits. At all.

The most important pursuit in human existence, is the pursuit of self awareness. And again by extension this must include others, as almost nothing of our existence can be experienced properly alone.

Our emotions, our instincts, indeed our very survival encompasses this pursuit. One of the keys to self discovery that I have found that works for me is this very process of intellectual deconstruction that I pursue. And I've found that making the effort, the truly difficult effort, to understand ones basic needs, ones basic primal instincts is a critical key to self discovery and perhaps even enlightenment.

We as human beings are dominated by our needs, our basic needs. And every esoteric, esthetic, intellectual, or noble pursuit we believe we engage in...ultimately stems from these primal needs. Given that these needs are not always predictable, or perhaps even rational, it is imperative to grasp their significance. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming a slave to them.

Air. We all need air to breathe in order to live. This is such a basic need that we don't even discuss it....until we are deprived of the privilege. And when this happens our primal instincts for survival take over...utterly so. The same goes for water....for food....to lesser degrees for shelter and comfort.

We should look at one of our more taboo laden needs in the same manner. The need for intimacy. I use the word intimacy as opposed to merely sex, because sex is merely a part of human intimacy.

Take any animal, and deprive it of contact with others of it's species (including ourselves) and several reliable things will happen. First, that animal will become clinically depressed. This is true whether we're talking Cocker Spaniels or humans. Secondly, and this is where the taboo's leak in, that animal will begin to sexually pleasure itself.

Conversely you shelter animals together, and they will naturally seek one another out..even if it is just for physical contact as simple as a touch.

Why do we hug our children? Because not only does it make us feel good, it makes them feel good. It is intrinsic to our nature to need the company of others, and it isn't just philosophical..it is quite tangible and real.

To think otherwise puts a fundamental need at odds with reality...with it's very purpose.

As we humans exist in organized societies we have often crafted "rules" about these basic needs of ours, and usually for sensible reasons. In a collective tribal species such as our own, order has it's place. But there are problems with leaning on cultural and social conventions too hard. Big ones in this day and age.

Just imagine if you will, the role of the average woman in human culture over the last 100,000 years that we can reliably say humans have lived in organized societies. That role was largely unchanged for, lets say about 99,900 years.

For the math challenged that means you, if you are a woman, are living in a very special time in human history. One fundamentally different for you than 99.9% of it has been for your gender.

Please take a moment to pause and bask in the amazing truth of that statement...

And {sticking to heterosexuality for the sake of simplicity here} consider that both men and women are fundamentally having to come to grips with this near about-face in human behaviors and expectations.

The very nature of gender itself, and it's role in society and our existence, is being redefined as we speak. This means our needs are having to come to terms with these changes too.

And if you are wrapping those needs, those intrinsic and primal needs, within the scope of what dusty wisdom from dusty books written thousands of years ago had to say on the subject, you are going to reliably fail at achieving your place in this world, and happiness within it. FAIL! It's so obvious when you really look at it outside of your "training" by the world.

Needs, when acted on with poor information, almost always end up with bad results. We all need to eat don't we? But look at western culture today. Runaway obesity and metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes in children, and even gout has become commonplace. Our modern diet, based on old (and bad) evidence and advice...is reliably killing us. But we don't question it all that much, because eating is a fundamental need. Fundamental needs can become deadly and bad for you, both physically and psychologically if you fail to understand them.

Understanding needs, really grasping their purpose and their place, transitions them into wants. And wanting is more within our sphere of intellectual grasp I feel.

If we can begin to see the logic of this with something as fundamental to our existence as our food, our very physical health....why can't we do the same things with our needs for intimacy?