Neuromancing the law
Regulating the techno-regulators
Column According to the Information Commissioner we are now waking up to find ourselves in a surveillance society. But what is a surveillance society?
We can all see the cameras, so now everyone's chattering about CCTV. But what about the vast array of other technologies being sewn into the fabric of society? Who is controlling them, and with what implications?
Unfortunately, the world we are building might not be as safe as it is secure.
On 8 April, TELOS was launched. Fifty academics from around the world congregated at TELOS's inaugural conference on "Regulating Technologies".
The double entendre in the title of the conference was no accident and visiting academics spent their Easter weekend grappling with the extent to which we are being regulated by technology - from talking CCTV cameras to "cellular enhancements" - and the extent to which we can or should seek to regulate this technology.
Cyberspace promised freedom. We abandoned our fortified castles of privacy for virtual communication in the naïve belief that we would be free to roam anonymously where we wished. Increasingly, we find ourselves bombarded with spam and viruses causing the fearful to draw in their horizons and retreat to the secure corporate environments of TiVo, Sony, Mylo, and BlackBerry.
Jonathan Zittrain, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University and co-founder of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University said users are tethering themselves to the makers of these devices. The makers are thereby empowered to determine what the users can do with their product and the extent to which what they do is monitored by law enforcement.
Persistent PC users invest in or are involuntarily "protected" with "filtering mechanisms", justified on the basis that law enforcement of cybercrime is ineffective (as opposed to law enforcement's legendary effectiveness in preventing street crime?).
TJ McIntrye, lecturer in law at University College Dublin, asked whether the rhetoric of "filtering" (and the connotations with sewage and clean water) disguised its true nature and ruled out effective accountability. OK, information was piped into our home and was passively consumed, so perhaps it needs to be regulated - but how and by whom? Is unfiltered data unclean or dangerous for everyone?
Unlike older methods of censorship such as banning books, end users of automated filtering might not even be aware of the censorship. He gave the example of BT's Cleanfeed filtering system that tells users attempting to access an unauthorised site that it is unavailable owing to a technical fault; the end-users are deceived by the filter into believing that the temptation does not exist.
Unlike formal legal mechanisms that ensure a degree of public accountability (for example: the obscenity trial of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which lowered the threshold of censorship) filtering systems failed to provide a list of prohibited sites, their criteria for designation, prior notice of prohibition, or an appellate procedure.
He asked whether it is desirable that governmental authority for citizen control is delegated to non-state actors; whether it is desirable for governments to seek to shape the internet in such a way as to make certain crimes impossible, and whether this leads to a removal of responsibility from the individual.
Re: The fat lady warms up
Good points, well made.
I have to agree strongly about corporate lobbying/politician access. I still don't get why an organisation that has no vote can get the ear of a politician so much more easily than your average voting public. Strikes me as somewhat un-democratic.
I can't agree with non-voters being a threat, as I am one ;-)
I just don't see the point in voting when I am given the choice of the devil or the deep blue sea. Give me a real protest vote and I will turn up to the voting booth. But while I have the choice of being grouped, by politicos as lazy (non-voters) or an idiot (spoiled ballots) I will stick with being a lay-about.
Privacy in the future
With the Internet becoming 99% spam, fake blogs and link sites, I think we'll end up giving up the pseudoanonymity of the Web for a system of authenticated users, possibly with a sort of reverse walled garden - a "walled chaos", where the things that require anonymity can go on (basically, posting information that someone somewhere doesn't want to be posted).
In the end, what we need isn't more services that give us an unrealistic sense of anonymity. We need a strict framework detailing what info a company can collect, and how it can be used, and how it can be displayed to and amended by the end user (including deletion of the data held). We need to stop trying to make individual threats to privacy illegal, and make privacy invasion as a whole regulated.
The fat lady warms up
"Could the legal profession, in extending its research tentacles into the sci-fi world of "ambient law", be accused of making a bid to become part of the ruling elite in an emerging technocracy?"
Am I the only one to find the above question hilarious? Like baby sharks most prelaw types congregate in PoliSci as a nursery in which to hone their predatory skills before graduating from Law. The real man killers graduate to politics. "... a bid to become part of the ruling elite..." You're kidding, right?
It's been my experience that the vast majority of people just want to wrap themselves in the comforting warmth of mediocrity. Whether by way of religion, political affiliation, or, the neighbourhood pub, they just want to get on with it, fit in, be validated, breed and live out their genetic programming. Having Big Brother watch over them is welcomed, as long as Big Brother includes a family member. Before we can speak to the threats posed by technology we need to answer the question/s as to why voting turn out in western democracies is so embarrassing low. Voter turn out is an accurate measure of overall concern about the erosion of personal freedoms.
Outsiders will always find a way to slip between the cracks. The more a program is written to meet standards the more likely some twisted, inventive script kiddie will find a way to script h/is/er way out of it, or, just mess with it. Technology shepherding the masses makes the pickings easier for predators.
Democracy today has a two tiered voting system. The first tier conventionally has one vote per adult member of the country; the second tier is the loosely regulated vote with each, almighty buck. Our faith and government is dollar based. The invisible hand, as noted by Adam Smith, moves over the, amusingly termed, laisser-faire markets and dictates, like the hand of God, what will be. Herky jerky we govern by espousing ideals from the ballot box and dictating policy for the cash box.
If we keep technology development in the private sector where people can vote with their dollars while the public sector is constrained by ideals and firewalled from undue influence by corporations then we might have a system of checks and balances in place to allow the masses to live comfortably, and, maybe, the majority will never need to give up a few precious hours of their lives to vote.
One threat come from corporations being allowed to lobby and finance politicians. Another threat comes from non voters.