Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Trust, Security, and Privacy

If you want to think about moral concepts that ground debates about privacy, you can't help but think about trust. The basis of a community is the trust that the members extend to one another: the trust that we will leave each other in peace, respect one another as human beings, and (hopefully) look out for one another's welfare. Democratic political institutions rely on citizens' trust that fair and open procedures create just societies. Without the possibility of trust, we lose all society, and all social philosophy.

Trust is also an important concept in security. We employ security out of a lack of trust. We trust the designers of our security and encryption systems. Citizens encrypt their data or web traffic because they do not trust the government. The government resists citizen use of strong encryption because they do not trust the citizens.

It might be easy to conclude that with sufficient trust, we would have no need for security or encryption. I think there are independent reasons to value privacy, so let's no go quite that far. Instead, we might understand the practice of exchanging security credentials as demonstrations of trust. When I present my username paired with my password, I demonstrate that I have trusted access to the account. When a firm hires a new employee and creates security keys and access codes, the new employee is being initiated into a web of trust.

In many cases, we connect trust to identity. A security key demonstrates the identity of the holder, for instance. Certainly, the sense of trust that grounds a community seems connected to recognizing one another as neighbors. Nevertheless, we have a large anonymous community organized around activism, not to mention the mostly anonymous BBS and Usenet communities that formed in the early days of the online world.

The information economy also runs on trust. If users can trust information vendors to protect their private data, users are more likely to enter into the information market. In the US, information vendors have to rely on reputation and user-friendly privacy policies. The results are somewhat mixed, even more so since the PRISM leak. Some users just don't trust Big Data, and established trust can wane due to current events or changing attitudes.

So what do we do about this? Well, stay tuned...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Information Economy

I must apologize for my neglect of the blog. Preparing for an international move is, as my people say, "no joke." Nevertheless, the content must flow, so let me share with you a brief summary of my current work-in-progress.

Consider all of the pieces of information you acquire in your normal online life. The results of Google searches, status updates from social networks, email and calendar notifications - all of these can be thought of as informational goods. For the most part, you acquire them at no monetary cost, they appear to be free as in "free beer."

Still, if you think about it for a moment, there is something you've had to exchange for these informational goods. In particular, you have to trade some token of your own private information in exchange for these very convenient and valuable informational goods. In order to find out what your friends are up to, you have to reveal that you associate with those people. If you want Google to remind you of an appointment, you have to tell Google that you have an appointment.

For Shadowrunners, this is what it looks for for information to be a commodity. There is an exchange of value; you give something, you get something, but the only "thing" exchanged is not a thing at all. It's just data. This point becomes more clear when you think about the anatomy of the informational goods in question.

Specifically, the goods you want, the search results, updates, etc, consist of two parts: some more-or-less public (or otherwise available) information, and some private information. When the two are "baked" together, you get the informational goods that we go online to find. Let's think through one just one example.

Users of Google Now know that if you let Google crawl through your email, Google Now can provide you updates on things like travel reservations. Let's say you've booked a flight. You give Google Now permission to access your email inbox looking for tickets and other travel-related communications. That's the private information, held only by your and your airline. By giving Google access to that private information, Google can combine the private data with publicly available information about flight status and schedules to provide various notifications. You will get a notice that your flight is on-time, you will get a notice indicating your scheduled departure gate, and you will likely get a notice when you should leave for the airport so that you don't miss your flight due to traffic.

Now, since flight status, departure gates, and traffic information are all publicly available, you could put these informational goods together yourself. You can even use a non-tracking search engine like Ixquick or Startpage to ensure that no one knows you're looking up the information. Nevertheless, doing that takes time and effort, two things that are often in short supply when preparing for a trip. As such, the informational good you can get from Google in exchange for your private data is valuable to you.

That's how we've come to participate in a massive information economy where private data is the currency we trade in exchange for customized informational goods. Your private data is worth something to information vendors (or else they'd be asking for "hard" currency), but you often find it easy to trade that data for the immediate availability of something you could create for yourself. Before you write me off as technophobe, I don't think the information economy is bad all the way down. I do think that we need to reconsider privacy rights and protections to ensure that information vendors are not endangering us somewhere down the line.

Stay tuned for more on that last point as the article develops.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Networked Discourse

Sorry to let the flow of posts dry up, but I'm preparing to move abroad for a really interesting teaching opportunity. In the meantime, here's a fragment from some thinking about the rational discourse and communication technology.


Information and communications technology enables a raft of networked communications platforms. Email, IRC, and various social networking platforms are all designed to facilitate communication between individuals. Of course, we must also be aware that communication platforms shape the content of interpersonal communications. By creating a vessel for content, content must also fit within the vessel. 

Consider three stages of human communication technology:
Discourse Cacophony – with written language and symbol as the only communication technology, much human communication takes the form of spontaneous utterances in natural language. Discourse means nothing other than holding a conversation. With the sense of individuality arises the individual voice, idiosyncrasies in style and phrasing, so we have a wide diversity of potential expressive acts, all mutually intelligible within linguistic communities.

Discourse Hegemony – with the invention of the printing press and other mass communication technologies, discourse changes yet again. Books and television are largely one-way channels. Telegraph, radio, and telephone allow for two-way communication more or less along the lines of natural conversation. Nevertheless, the power of mass media to reach large audiences with a uniform message is staggering, and much public discourse is released through such channels. Popular feedback is stifled because mass communication channels are disproportionately available to the economically advantaged. Money in effect buys speech power (or communication power). Even if free expression is held as a popular right, most people are not able to exercise that right beyond the limits of direct interpersonal communications.

Discourse Plurality – with the rise of networked communication, the nature of communication changes yet again. To existing technologies we add a communications infrastructure capable of linking more people across longer distances. The most remarkable development in this stage is real-time multiparty communication available to a wide audience. On social networking platforms, conversations between individuals are broadcast to audiences who can then participate in the conversation.

At the Discourse Plurality stage as we have realized it, communication is, as usual, formed by the platform. With a variety of platforms available, the architecture of the chosen platform matters. Twitter allows for only 140 characters, Reddit and Slashdot are governed by reputation economies, and Google+ emphasizes broadcasting and rebroadcasting content. Personal blogs are no more constrained than a written letter, but may be less visible to a broad audience.

To take up the Rawlsian question of which platform is most appropriate for public reason, or the parallel Habermasian question regarding communicative action and discourse ethics, is to misunderstand how individuals use these platforms. The architecture of a platform makes it more suitable for some expressive acts rather than others, and the culture of users that develops on each platform creates a unique communication environment. In this communications environment, we need to understand public discourse as distributed conversations taking place across platforms.

We have moved beyond the simple public speech or debate and into a communication culture of analysis and meta-analysis.

Friday, July 12, 2013

DC Reflections

I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC where I spent a few days attending events and networking with various think tanks and advocacy organizations. Having spent the last few years doing academic work in political theory and intellectual property, learning about the policy work that happens closer to the sphere of praxis than theory has been eye-opening. My motivations for working on political philosophy included finding ways to make actual change in the world, and I have at times found myself frustrated with the isolation of the academic environment.

Going to DC, I learned that the isolation problem works both ways. While it's difficult to get politicians and policy-makers to hear academic arguments, I've found myself that academics are not always interested in the application of their theories. Since my work contains specific and substantial discussions of how theory should shape practice, I've gotten a bit of pushback. I've heard similar stories from other academics, still in the academy and not. I can understand the sense that stepping back from the creation of policy or direct political action gives an air of objectivity, but there is also a cost to stepping back.

The cost I have in mind is the communication gap between academic work and the creation of policy. Congresscritters are not experts, but they need to decide issues as if they were. Since they can't afford panels of expert advisers, they have to seek some outside support. Here enters the lobbyist, the advocate, the think tank, the research analyst. These are not all equivalent terms, but they exist in a shared space and fill similar roles: assimilating expert opinion from academics, industry leaders, and front-line professionals, and translating it into concrete policy recommendations.

Don't get me wrong, this is work that needs to get done. What I don't understand is why university faculty stepped back from this role. In giving up the role of translator and communicator, academics have sacrificed one of the most valuable public goods offered by higher education institutions. People who spend their lives immersed in their fields of study should be best-equipped to explain the relevance of their expertise and to connect abstract theory with concrete issues. More importantly, without the public-facing responsibility, academic allow the rest of the community to wonder what it is they do and why it is so important.

I've got my own worries about the future of higher education in the US, and seeing these developments reinforces those concerns.