The Citizen Surveillance State

Like everyone, I listened to the news about the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday afternoon with horror. I’m not from the area myself, but I have a lot of friends who live there, and a lot of friends who run marathons. Luckily for my personal peace of mind that afternoon, those two groups don’t intersect for me, and I was so grateful as one by one, so many people posted to Facebook and twitter that they were OK. I know many other people weren’t so lucky.
It’s also been fascinating to watch over the last several days as the FBI has asked anyone with photos or video of (or before) the bombings to send them in. There must be tens of thousands of submissions for them to sift through, and yesterday the FBI posted several pictures taken from various sources of two men they are seeking information about in connection with the blasts. It’s remarkable how quickly law enforcement has been able to pinpoint suspects given the huge volume of evidence they must have had to sift through, but it was virtually inevitable that they would have photos and video of whomever did this.
I’ve heard it said that this is probably the most photographed and recorded terrorist event in history, and I’m sure that’s true. Sure, this is partially because the Boston Marathon is a huge public event, but it’s also because we are living in an era of citizen surveillance. Very simply, if you go out in public and are around other people, there’s a pretty decent chance you are being recorded. Some of this is because of the ever increasing use of security cameras and cctv, but it’s also because nearly everyone is carrying a recording device around with them in the form of a phone.
As a society, we are still figuring out how to deal with this. I’m sure they meant well, but redditors publicly misidentified two subjects, likely putting them in danger. Reddit eventually stepped in to stop things, but if you had been one of the two guys who’s personal information had been posted identifying you as a suspect, that probably too way to long to happen.
So we live in an era of mass citizen surveillance – that is to say, (mostly unintentional) surveillance by other citizens. Of course, most of us think of this data as not being organized in any cohesive way, but actually, a lot of it is. Most people don’t realize it, but almost all smart phones by default geo-tag all photos they take. When you post them, you’re not just posting the image, you’re posting where and when it was taken. Users can turn this feature off, but since most of them don’t realize it exists, they don’t. Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr all have APIs that allow searches by geographic area. Right now this isn’t something most people can actually do, but for law enforcement or anyone with programming skills, it isn’t difficult at all.
What does all this mean? I’m not really sure, actually. But it did all remind me to switch off geo-tagging on my phone.

Food Technology

My boyfriend just gave me a sous vide machine. So of course, I spent hours today reading not just about sous vide cooking, but also about modernist cooking techniques and ingredients – all the gels and powders and thickeners! I don’t know if I’ll ever use this to do anything more complicated than amazing carrots(I don’t eat meat, so the short ribs are out), but this all was reminding me of a book I was reading a couple of weeks ago, Salt, Sugar, Fat.

The degree to which technology and engineering have revolutionized the way food is produced is difficult to overstate. And this has done a lot of good! In 1950, American households spent almost 30% of their income on food. Now, that figure is just above 10%. For Americans on the lower end of the income scale, this in undeniably good. But scientific techniques haven’t just been used to increase farm yields. The taste and texture of processed foods themselves have been engineered to such a degree that they are nearly irresistible to many people. While on a technical level, I have a huge amount of admiration for the work that has gone into finding the most delicious cheetos possible, the social consequences of this work are pretty serious. Food science that makes high calorie food irresistible is obviously not the only reason for America’s obesity epidemic and the resulting health consequences, but it’s clearly part of the picture.

As an engineer, as someone who, professionally, optimizing things to make them as efficient as possible, I can sympathize with the people who worked to make our processed foods as irresistible, as moreish as possible. And what scares me there personally, is how many people involved in these efforts who a) Wouldn’t eat the food they produce and b) Now regret the work they did. I really try to be conscious of the consequences of the work that I do. I don’t know if I’m making the world a better place, but I like to think I’m not making it worse.

wait, 3-d printing organs?

Several years ago, a relative of mine needed a liver transplant. While she did ultimately receive one, she was one of the lucky ones, but the wait was far too long. Sadly, she never fully recovered after the transplant and died a few months later. I thought then (and still think) if she had been able to get a transplant when she needed it, she might have lived. There is an organ shortage the world wide, but it is particularly acute in the United States because our medical system makes organ donation an ‘opt-in’ that ill and injured people’s families aren’t prepared to deal with. Social scientists and ethicists are still working on that problem, but maybe someday we won’t need donated organs, we’ll be able to 3-D print them.

This is a very, very early step towards someday being able to manufacture tissues and organs. They are just figure out how to do this. But the prospect of being able to manufacture tissue in this way is a huge leap forward. Of course, no one is going to be printing off a heart in the next year. But the potential benefits here are enormous. Skin grafts for burn victims might be one early application, but kidneys and livers are the real prize. Organ trading is illegal in every country on earth, but it’s virtually impossible to prevent very wealthy people from paying people, often uneducated people in third world countries, to ‘donate’ a kidney. I’m not saying that this will democratize access to healthcare – but I do think that this is an area where the natural scarcity leads to vastly, vastly unequal access and outcomes. ANYTHING that can move the needle is welcome, and long overdue.

So where are the battle lines now?

A cyber attack that sabotaged Iran’s uranium enrichment program was an “act of force” and was likely illegal, according to research commissioned by NATO’s cyber warfare center. And really, it was only a matter of time before the international community came out and said this. What is particularly problematic here for the U.S. is that we’ve redefined our own grounds for war to include cyber attacks. In reality, I think the only reason U.N. hasn’t called the U.S. and Israel out for this yet is that Europe and Russia are even more concerned about a nuclear Iran than we are.
But I think there is a larger question here. If a virus is an act of force, if a cyber attack is an act of war, then where are the battle lines? Devastating viruses that have done billions of dollars in damages have been written by ‘lone hackers’. Scores of government agencies in every country have been hacked at one time or another. So who do we hold responsible for these attacks? That may sound like it should be an easy distinction to make, and in many western democracies it would be. But what about China? Western companies in the past couple of years have had persistent problems with Chinese hackers. A couple of these have been tracked back to the Chinese National Army, easy enough. But what about an attack by students at a University? It’s a government body. Who is responsible? What about if an attack was tracked back to a Chinese state-owned company? What if it was tracked back to a company that wasn’t state owned but where the state was a majority shareholder?
There is, of course, and upside and a downside here. The downside is obvious – another legal ground for war. But in the case of stuxnet, who knows what Israel and the U.S. would have done if a cyber attack wasn’t a viable option? I don’t know the answer, but it probably isn’t nothing. If the battle lines are moving online, perhaps the cost of war will be greater in treasure but less in blood. It’s tricky to talk of a ‘better’ war, but this doesn’t seem like it’s worse.

The digital divide – wait, there are people who don’t have broadband?

I saw this on PBS and was reminded with a shock that there are still Americans (and lots of people in other first world countries) that still don’t have broadband access. For those of us who live in the tech bubble, this is easier and easier to forget – especially since these days basically everywhere I go that’s indoors has free wi-fi. (Seriously. Including the gym I go to.)
Of course, as the interview says, one big group that’s less likely to have broadband access is the elderly. For this group, my guess is that a good portion of that lack of access is by choice. For this group as well, it’s a problem that will fix itself with time – by the time my generation is retired, there probably won’t be a huge gap in these numbers.
What’s more concerning to me is the group of people who don’t have broadband access because they either live in an area where non-satellite based broadband isn’t available or because they simply can’t afford the cost. Broadband internet is quickly becoming something that is pretty vital to being part of society – it isn’t a luxury any more when most jobs expect you to apply online and the fastest way to interact with most government agencies is via their website.
I was pretty happy to read about the FCC’s Low Income Broadband Pilot Program. I’m sure it will wind up being controversial, but it’s seems to me like a sensible recognition of the fact that broadband internet is quickly becoming a crucial part of our daily life. Regarding what can be done about getting broadband to the very remote places that are still not connected, that is a tougher problem. There have been government programs for decades working to get phone lines installed on Native American reservations. While these programs could be a model for similar efforts to get broadband lines installed, the fact that telephone access is still an issue demonstrates the how tough the problem is. There are areas where satellite access is probably the most cost effective form of broadband internet – and that’s probably not something that will be fixed with time.

You have to work pretty hard to make something private these days

Oh Google, I love a lot of your products and services, but this was pretty stupid. If you hadn’t heard of this before, basically Google Street View cars were scanning open wireless networks and scraping them for any information they could get. Google apologized and paid a big fine, but correctly note that what they did wasn’t actually illegal in any way.
I’ve thought for a long time that obscurity was actually a pretty good privacy protection – for years my home wifi didn’t have a password because I was set quite far back from the main road and it made it so much easier when guests came over. I finally added a password a few years ago, but in general I’m not one of the privacy paranoid. Efforts like this however, and the fact that they are not, nor is it likely that they ever will be, are changing that. My personal information is valuable. And these days there are more an more companies like Google that have the resources to gather that information en mass.
We are less and less obscure every year.
Some of this is totally out of our hands. The ever-falling cost of processing power and better and better data crunching algorithms mean that it’s feasible to find and store a lot of information about, literally, everyone. But, a lot of this we give away ourselves – without even realizing it. Anyone who sends un-encrypted data over open wi-fi in the eyes of the law has zero expectation of privacy – but I bet that’s not what those users thought. In the U.S., the courts have held that law enforcement can trace you via your smartphone without a warrant. Since your phone is constantly broadcasting a GPS signal, the logic goes, it’s akin to using a dog to trace your scent. But I seriously doubt many people know this.
Some of this, of course, will be fixed by time. Technology is a disrupter, and we are all, collectively, constantly learning how to use it. Criminals are figuring out they have to switch off their cell phones. People like me have added passwords to their home wifi networks. At some point maybe Harvard deans will realize their work email isn’t private and figure out how to use Tor – then we’ll know the future has arrived!

The future of 3-D Printing

A good friend of mine is a pretty active hobbyist 3-D printer. He has two of the things – and sometimes both of them are even fully assembled and working! What isn’t often discussed in all the hype about 3-D printing is just how difficult the things are to use. He spends ages tinkering with temperatures(for the extruder and the build platform), the extruder flow rates, the slice sizes, and the fill patterns whenever he tries to print a new design. It usually takes him at least 5, if not 10 attempts to get a usable print. The fact is, 3-D printing is still very much in it’s infancy. That’s not to say it’s not going to change our world, I just think it’s going to be more stuff like this 3-D printed skull than home-made AR-15 lowers.

And that’s still really cool! A medical implant that is perfectly scaled and shaped to the body of the person who’s receiving it. That may not be the at-home revolution that a lot of people are dreaming about, but even customization on this level has the possibility of improving a lot of lives. And have you heard of Shapeways?

It looks like it’s just an Etsy for 3-D printed stuff, but it’s actually much more than that. If you have a design, you can commission a print from Shapeways. If you want to, you can upload it to their site for sale to other people who want your design. So far, jewelry seems really popular, which makes sense. The power of the 3-D printing is in the customization it allows. It’s never going to make much sense to print out your own… Legos at home rather than buying them in a shop, but how cool would it be to be able to design your own Lego set, have it custom made, and have it shipped to your home?