Oops, there goes privacy! So now what?

Most of the more enthusiastic web developers worry me. In their wild-eyed enthusiasm for the latest, coolest technology they seem almost oblivious to wider or longer-term implications. Nick Bradbury, creator of FeedDemon, a popular RSS reader for Windows, had an interesting take on this recently.

Back in 2004, I asked: “What are we actually building here? A lot of people in my profession wear rose-colored glasses and believe we’re helping to make information free to the world, but some of the early proponents of television believed the same thing. Are we really just building the next version of TV, one even more powerful because it knows your name and shopping habits?”

I thought I was being cynical then, but now I’m not so sure. Google continues to carve out a huge share of the Internet advertising market, in large part by figuring out what we’re paying attention to. The quality of the content doesn’t really matter to them — only the number of eyeballs they can advertise to does. Sounds a lot like commercial TV, doesn’t it?

So far, has the Web been better than TV, or just more targeted? And is it really worth giving up so much privacy in order to get it?

One of the biggest changes facing society right now is a massive loss of individual privacy. And one of the best introductions to the issues is Simson Garfinkel’s book Database Nation.

Garfinkel is a leading researcher in computer forensics, so he’s well aware that “privacy on the Internet” isn’t really about your email address being used to send you spam — despite that being the focus of most website privacy statements.

As he says in Database Nation:

To understand privacy in [the 21st century] we need to rethink what privacy really means today:

  • It’s not about the man who wants to watch pornography in complete anonymity over the Internet. It’s about the woman who’s afraid to use the Internet to organise her community against a proposed toxic dump — afraid because the dump’s investors are sure to dig through her past if she becomes too much of a nuisance.
  • It’s not about people speeding on the nation’s highways who get automatically generated tickets mailed to them thanks to a computerised speed trap. It’s about lovers who will take less joy in walking around city streets or visiting stores because they know they’re being photographed by surveillance cameras everywhere they step.
  • It’s not about the special prosecutors who leave no stone unturned in their search for corruption of political misdeeds. It’s about the good, upstanding citizens who are now refusing to enter public service because they don’t want a bloodthirsty press rummaging through their old school reports, computerised medical records and email.
  • It’s not about the searches, metal detectors and inquisitions that have become a routine part of our daily lives at airports, schools and federal buildings. It’s about a society that views law-abiding citizens as potential terrorists, yet does little to effectively protect its citizens from real threats to their safety.

Actually, you could argue that privacy has already been lost — we just don’t realise it yet.

It’s now impossible to drive anonymously across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Every mobile phone is a tracking device. Every web page you look at is logged by your Internet service provider. And a generation is recording every little detail of their lives in LiveJournal or MySpace or Facebook or whatever social media website will make all those look so last week.

My take on this?

Society will have to come to terms with the fact that everyone has skeletons in the cupboardthat joint they smoked, for instance. Roughly 1 in 7 of the men listed on birth certificates isn’t actually the father — but now routine DNA screening for diseases is uncovering uncomfortable bedroom secrets.

Many “bad” things are really quite common — they’re just not talked about. Our private worlds remain private. Or at least they used to.

We’ll have to get used to the idea that politicians, teachers, bus drivers — whoever! — are all flawed humans. We can’t ban those who smoked a joint or has “a history of mental illness” (depression affects 800,000 Australian adults a year) or committed a crime (copyright infringement is now a crime, you know) or there’ll be no-one left!

So long-term we might get a more tolerant society, with a more reality-based view of the world.

However in the shorter term I can see a decrease in tolerance. As new technologies reveal more of our hidden private worlds, people will be shocked to discover “all these criminals” and so on, and there’ll be a crackdown.

It could be an uncomfortable few decades.

The Internet, 1994

1994 promotional video for the web, from Digital: click to watch video

“A global electronic mall is under construction,” enthuses this wonderful promotional video from 1994 extolling the virtues of the Internet.

“Come, take a look at the future we can build together,” says Digital Equipment Corporation, once one of the world’s most important computer companies.

Here [on the Internet], the smallest of companies can search and shop on a global scale for the best resources and products at the best prices. Here those same small companies can market their own abilities and products in a global marketplace. This means a new array of risks and opportunities. In the future you’ll be forced to compete with distant companies you’ve never encountered before. And you’ll be able to expand to new markets at low cost.

Only 13 years on, watching this video is already a retro experience. The grey pages of the Mosaic web browser were state of the art in 1994 — pictures as well as text! 1994 is still a year before the Internet exploded into popular awareness. A year before Netscape and Yahoo! and Amazon.com and Windows 95. A year before I was headhunted to move to Sydney to play in the dot.com boom.

DEC logo

For me, there’s two levels of nostalgia in his video — nostalgia for the Internet before it really did become that “shopping mall”, and nostalgia for Digital.

Digital Equipment Corporation made the most popular scientific computers from the late 1960s. The PDP-10 mainframe (later DECsystem-10) was at the heart of every decent computing science department in the 70s.

But what every programmer wanted was the coolest toy of all, the PDP-11 minicomputer. From a programmers point of view it was well-engineered, it was designed for mass production — and it just looked so goddam cool.

Digital PDP-11/20 minicomputer: click for a closer view

I never encountered a PDP-11 in real life, so I never saw those glorious purple buttons with my own eyes. But at university I did play with its successor, the VAX-11 — essentially a souped-up PDP-11 with integrated circuits instead of transistors — and soon understood why programmers thought it was so good. It just worked.

The BSD Unix operating system which underpinned the Internet and which inspired Linux was first written for PDP-11s and Vaxen (the accepted plural of “VAX”). They inspired the design of Motorola’s microprocessors — clean and simple to program — which were used by Apple’s early machines right through to only two years ago. Much cleaner and more logical than the clunky Intel processors which powered IBM’s PC and its clones.

Digital made computers designed by programmers for programmers — it was as simple as that.

“Digital is here already as a leader in the field,” boasts the video. But alas Digital is no more. “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” said Digital’s founder, Ken Olsen. But he was wrong. The minicomputer market disappeared as the PC revolution took hold. Digital was bought out by Compaq, who in turn were bought out by HP.

Look at that video a couple of times. Remember, that’s only 13 years ago. Now look at the Internet available right in front of you now — and try to imagine what it’ll all be like in another 13 years.

Thanks to Memex 1.1 for the pointer and further observations.

Scaring the shit out of clients

It was Oscar Wilde or G B Shaw or — oh, somebody interesting — who, when accused of shocking people, replied to the effect that people should be shocked a good deal more often. Or offended. Anyway, I can’t find the right quote so here’s a different one.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

That’s Wilde.

Yesterday we ruffled a client’s feathers. We were invited to tender for a web development project. Our response was, in essence, “Yeah we’re interested — but not if you’re going to do it that way. We don’t think that’ll work because [reasons]. We strongly recommend doing it [some other way]. Before we go any further, is it cool for us to tender that way, knowing that’s not what you asked for? Oh, and here’s the keys to our intranet, so you can see the dialog which led to this conclusion.”


Someone’s worldview was gunned down ruthlessly! Politely, but we did use phrases like “high-risk death march”.

Now I should say that one of us worked with this client for almost a decade and the other has worked with them on two projects in the last year. So our comments were based on some knowledge of the organisation and its needs as well as our own professional opinions. Nevertheless, what we said was shocking.

I’ve always wondered why clear, direct communication is so rare in business.
People seem almost afraid to say what they mean. “Don’t upset the client!” So a recommendation like “Process A is dangerous and you should change that immediately or risk almost certain failure” becomes a mealy-mouthed “Is everyone happy with the assumptions relating to Process A?”

All urgency is drained away. The project continues flying serenely towards the looming mountain.

But don’t upset the client.

If your recommendation is for major change, when do you broach the subject?
Sign up to the “wrong” concept of the project and then try to change it? Leave it until people have spent more time going down the wrong path, and the deadline is closer? No, something so important should be communicated as soon as possible.

Organisations aren’t used to people speaking quite so directly. When it happens, it’s like a splash of iced water into the face. And sometimes, that splash into alertness is precisely what’s needed.

Greens senator asks last century’s question

Photograph of USS Kitty Hawk in Sydney HarbourI like The Greens. They’re funny. They make me laugh. Haw. Haw. Haw. Snort.

There’s a bloody great aircraft carrier in Sydney Harbour. The whole city’s stopping to gawk at it. One of the most potent, visible symbols of Australia’s alliance with the US — and, by extension, our involvement in the War on Foreign Men with Beards and, you know, that Iraq thing — is sitting right there in front of us. So how does Senator Kerry Nettle use this opportunity?

Senator Kerry Nettle reacts to the Big Bad N-word with all the predictability of a cuckoo clock. Senator Kerry Nettle reckons us Sydneysiders have “a right to know” whether USS Kitty Hawk is carrying nuclear weapons. If it is, Senator Kerry Nettle reckons any accident on the ship could be a “catastrophe”.

No shit, Sherlock! It’s a goddam warship! It’s chock full’o jet fuel, ammunition, lubricants, rocket fuel, missile warheads and a thousand other things that are either as toxic as all get-up or go boom. Got that? Warship. So a couple of nukes buried down in some well-protected hidey-hole is the least of our worries.

And besides, Senator Kerry Nettle, what do you reckon? A US aircraft carrier, based out of Yokosuka, Japan, near that place, oh… what is it again? Yeah, North Korea. And with the job of…? Oh yeah, act as the core of an independent task force in the event of global war, whether conventional or nuclear.


So, Senator Kerry Nettle, do you reckon the Kitty Hawk might be carrying perhaps just one or two nuclear weapons? Maybe just little ones? Yeah, me too. I reckon there just might be a couple’o nukes here.

While we don’t have a “right to be told” — hey, this is America we’re talking about, they’re answerable only to God — we do have a right to use our brains and figure it out for ourselves.

Or, come to think of it, see if that other Greens guy, Andrew Wilkie, has something more contemporary to say. Apparently he knows about stuff.

Terrorist Special Olympics in the UK

I’ve unsubtly hinted at this before, but the mainstream media doesn’t seem to run this angle: The “terrorist” “bombings” in the UK just now were completely half-arsed and simply don’t deserve the attention they’re getting — unless it’s about having a really good belly-laugh.

Bruce Schneier, ever the clear-thinker about these issues, says it in his headline:

Terrorist Special Olympics in the UK

First London and then Glasgow. Who are these idiots? Is there a Special Olympics for terrorists going on in the UK this week?

Two points about Glasgow:

Thumbnail of Glasgow car burning

One, airport security worked. And two, putting a propane tank into a car and driving into a building at high speed is the sort of thing that only works in old episodes of The A Team. On television, you get a massive, extensive explosion. In real life, you only get a small localized fire.

I am particularly pleased with the reaction from the Scots, which is measured and reasonable. No one was hurt; no need to panic. Life goes on.

But don’t let this reality disturb the paranoid Fox News uberreality in which we live. Lo! There is grainy vision of a burning car. Lo! There are foreign men with funny names and dark skin. Lo! We raid their homes and find “religious literature”…

Hang on! Did I miss the day “religious literature” became suspicious?

Bruce Schneier’s essay on that laughable plan to blow up JFK (the airport, not the dead president) makes an important point about that:

Terrorism is a real threat, and one that needs to be addressed by appropriate means. But allowing ourselves to be terrorized by wannabe terrorists and unrealistic plots — and worse, allowing our essential freedoms to be lost by using them as an excuse — is wrong.


And let’s repeat the point. You’re far more likely to be killed by lightning or by drowning in your own bathtub than being killed by a terrorist.

Releasing the Black Hawk crash video was A Good Thing

[Update 13 April 2012: It turned out that the Black Hawk wasn’t a perfectly good helicopter after all. I will eventually update this post. Perhaps. But today I’ll be linking to this post because the Department of Defence has respected the wishes of the family and not released the Inquiry Officer Report into the death of Sapper Jamie Larcombe. I think that’s wrong for the reasons set out in this post.]

Frame grab of Black Hawk helicopter crash on HMAS Kanimbla: click for YouTube videoAn open letter to family and friends of those who died in the crash of the Black Hawk helicopter on HMAS Kanimbla, and to those who survived.

I understand why you didn’t want the crash video made public. Every time you see it, you’ll re-live that crash. And every time, you’ll feel that black void of horror creeping back up into your mind. The horror may stay with you for years. It’s pretty fucked, I know.

But despite the on-going pain it inevitably causes, I think it’s not only reasonable that such videos be made public, I think it’s essential.

In 1992, there was another accident. During an army live-fire exercise, an assault rifle accidentally discharged and a soldier died. A very good friend of mine was holding that rifle. And while both a military inquiry and a civilian coronial inquest agreed it was an accident and found my friend blameless, the post-traumatic stress and guilt stayed with him for years — to the point where it became unbearable and he hanged himself at the end of 1996.

His parents were devastated. I wasn’t too thrilled either, having cut him down from the tree in my back yard and, later, helped carry him to his grave.

Some of us reckon the army hadn’t taken proper care of one of their own. The 2005 Senate inquiry into the The effectiveness of Australia’s military justice system agreed.

As a direct result of Senate recommendations, the inquiry into the Black Hawk crash was headed by a civilian judge — the first time that’d happened. And that judge declared the video should be released. It was right and proper that he do so.

Secrecy provides a breeding-ground for corruption.

Secrecy can be used to cover up incompetence.

Secrecy is, of course, essential in many military operations. But when it comes to finding out why a perfectly good helicopter slammed into the deck of a ship and then dragged two fine men to their deaths, secrecy has no place. Justice needs to be done — out of respect to those men, and out of respect to every man and woman who chooses to serve the Australian people in the armed forces.

Justice not only needs to be done, we need to see that it’s being done — and that means putting the evidence on the public record.

I’m sorry you’ve had to re-live the disaster. I know even reading this letter will hurt. I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight too, having re-lived my own story. That’s the price of Justice. It’s worth paying.