Free Future

Friday Links Roundup

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 2:52pm

A few links that have caught our eye this past week:

Earlier this month in response to the Pauls’ Internet Manifesto I pointed out that the internet “was created by the government.” Monday Gordon Crovitz wrote a column arguing that this was an “urban legend,” and that the internet “reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government.” Since his column went to print, it has been thoroughly debunked by many experts, including Vint Cerf, Robert Metcalfe, Tim Berners-Lee, and even internet history expert Michael Hilzik, whom Crovitz quotes in his column. Media Matters, summing it up, asks whether the WSJ will issue a correction lest a nation full of Journal readers be left with a falsehood.

One additional point: Crovitz gives much of the credit to Xerox, in whose PARC research lab many technology breakthroughs originated. Xerox itself declines to take credit for creating the internet, but I would also question whether even the kind of advances that did emerge out of research centers such as Xerox PARC and Bell Labs really are an example of free market innovation. Frenetic free market competition certainly drives much great innovation, but I suspect these kinds of research centers were valuable precisely because they were funded by well-established, deep-pocketed companies that were in a position to insulate researchers from such competition—to give them some breathing space to do basic research and explore new ideas. That is what much government research does as well. Competition and the profit motive are far from the only drivers of innovation—simple curiosity and play are often critical as well. Not to mention, as Hilzik’s book details, the profit-making wing of Xerox “consistently failed to exploit PARC’s innovations.”

In May I blogged about having my driver’s license swiped at Target stores and elsewhere without my permission, and how this practice is becoming common; my ACLU colleagues in Hawaii inform me that that state recently became the latest to enact a law limiting businesses’ right to swipe customers’ licenses and to use the data thereby collected. Hawaii joins a few other states, including California, Rhode Island, Oregon, and New Hampshire, that have passed laws limiting third-party access to, and retention of, information on driver’s licenses.

One of the perennial scenarios painted for the future of drones is their use by paparazzi to spy on celebrities. In the US that has not been legal because the FAA has banned the commercial use of drones (though Congress ordered the agency to reverse that policy earlier this year). But in France, it’s already happening, according to this piece on “Sharks of the French Riviera.” Celebrities are often the first to feel the effects of lost privacy—but as Kashmir Hill points out, we’re all becoming celebrities when it comes to privacy. Not only in that we might all find it harder to keep personal behavior secret, as Hill points out, but also because records of our personal behavior can increasingly be monetized. Maybe photos of us lounging on the beach won’t be worth thousands of dollars, but the details of our habits, preferences, and purchases can now be bought and sold just the same, and in a capitalist system somebody will figure out every possible means of collecting that money if we don’t put in place rules to stop them.

Closer to earth, but still regarding video surveillance, this video from the Guardian demonstrates how London’s dense network of surveillance cameras can be used to track a particular person as he walks throughout the city (in this case, from Oxford Circus to Piccadilly Circus). There’s a quantum leap in surveillance when we go from scattered cameras controlled by different entities, to a unified and centralized system able to persistently monitor an individual across a city in real time.

Finally, Wired has a nice profile of Cryptocat, a browser-based encrypted-chat program, and its college-student creator Nadim Kobeissi, 21. I found it particularly interesting that Kobeissi reports being singled out for repeated searches and interrogations by CBP whenever he visits the United States. He says the interrogations focus on his work on the encrypted-chat software. In last week’s roundup I mentioned the CBP data mining program ATS; if development of encrypted-chat software is the kind of thing that CBP really regards as a legitimate target for scrutiny, I hate to think what kind of junk is being dumped into the ATS program, and how that system is being used.

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