Privacy: J. Edgar’s Not The Hoover You Need to Worry About Anymore

Roomba 980

Is your vacuum cleaner spying on you? Hamza Shaban of the Washington Post reports that iRobot, maker of the “autonomous” Roomba vacuum, may eventually sell the internal maps of your home  the device builds to facilitate its work to the makers of other “smart home” devices.

In the latest phase of our frenzied technological advancement, it’s clear that yes, our gadgets do collect and use more and more information about us, and that that information progressively ramifies across more, bigger, and more integrated networks.

The bigger question: Is it worth it?

The answer: It depends.

Benjamin Franklin cautioned us against “giv[ing] up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety.” If he lived today, I think he’d be fascinated by the Internet of Things — and that in updating the quote above to describe it, he’d likely substitute “privacy” and “convenience” for “liberty” and “safety.”

I’m not going to try to tell you not to buy an autonomous vacuum or  smart thermostat or Amazon Alexa voice-activated device (I have a couple of those myself). They can be incredibly useful. They can make our lives better in significant ways.

But when weighing the associated costs, don’t forget to account for the risks inherent in sharing your information. Who’s gathering it? What will be done with it? Where will it end up, intentionally or otherwise? The commercial applications, however annoying and intrusive they might become, aren’t the half of it.

One not terribly far-out, if somewhat dystopian, prediction:

As autonomous vacuums and similar map-reliant devices become the norm (and as they get cheaper, that will happen), governments will become major customers for the information they gather. The obvious application for that data is law enforcement (for example, being able to call up the floor plan of a house when planning a search or raid). But you should also expect that your county assessor will use that information when calculating square footage for your tax bill, and don’t be surprised if city planning and zoning bureaucrats come knocking to talk about that addition you built without a permit.

And then, of course, there’s the criminal element (but I repeat myself). The same people who stole your credit card number at the gas pump last year may acquire and use this type of information to case your house for prospective burglary next year.

Watch yourself. And never forget that your stuff is watching you too.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter:[email protected]) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

The State is at War — with the Future

RGBStock.com WWW

It’s turning into a long hot summer for the emerging global counter-economy.

In June and July, an international group of law enforcement agencies took down two of the largest “Dark Web” marketplaces, Hansa and Alphabay.

Then on July 25, the US Securities and Exchange Commission issued a weird, barely coherent, press release seemingly kinda sorta but not exactly declaring its own plenary authority over all things cryptocurrency.

On the heels of the SEC’s fit  of apparent glossolalia, the US Department of Justice announced its indictment of cryptocurrency exchange BTC-e for “money laundering” even as one of the site’s admins, Alexander Vinnik, was arrested in Greece.

What we’re seeing  is the latest bit of backlash from a  political establishment scared witless by technologies which threaten to make it superfluous.

A friend of mine who writes under the pseudonym dL notes that “[t]he trajectory of technology follows a repeated path. When first introduced, it gives an asymmetric advantage to the individual. Over time, the state catches up and the asymmetric advantage shifts to the state.” Maybe he’s right. Maybe the political class will be able to nip a bright future in the bud and maintain its grip on power.

On the other hand,  Victor Hugo seemed quite sure that “one withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.”

We stand at the doorway of a future featuring money without borders, work and trade without permission. That future represents existential crisis for the political class: The end of the state as we know it. Absent the ability to tax and regulate its host, the parasite known as government starves and dies.

The situation is equally dire for the rest of us.

High-profile takedowns like the Silk Road, Alphabay, Hansa and BTC-e, large as they loom in the moment, are mere speed bumps. The road to the future remains open, and the only way to plausibly close that road off entirely is to essentially pull the plug on every technological development since the introduction of the personal computer. What would that look like? Think the Dark Ages, the Great Depression, and North Korea all rolled into one.

There’s no doubt that the American and global political classes are willing to go there. Any number of regimes have done so on a temporary and semi-effectual basis in times of unrest, and American politicians have seriously proposed ideas like an “Internet Kill Switch.” The excuse for such proposals is to protect us from terrorists and drug dealers, but make no mistake: Their real purpose is to protect our rulers  from us.

That’s what’s at stake, folks.  We can free ourselves or we can return to the caves. There is no third alternative.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter:[email protected]) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY

Send in the Clown: Scaramucci versus the Leakers

Русский: Comedie italienne (Arlequin, Scaramou...
Русский: Comedie italienne (Arlequin, Scaramouche, Capitan, Mezzetin) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Italian  comic theater, Scaramouche is a clown, the boastful poltroon whose antics frequently bring him to grief.  Presumably new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci’s name is related  to that tradition.

His personality seems tailored to it as well: He’s off to a running start with the boast that he’s going to put a stop to White House leaks. How? “I’ll fire everybody, that’s how I’m going to do it. You’re either going to stop leaking or you’re going to be fired.”

That would be cool, if he meant it and if the people he pink-slipped wouldn’t be replaced. But even draconian measures like mass firings won’t stop the leaks.

In Washington information is currency and there will always be staffers who are willing to spend a little of it in pursuit of their own careers and political goals. A White House job is at most a four to eight year gig, and unless you’re the president himself (maybe even then!) the goal is to use it to move up in the world. A positive relationship with the press comes in handy on that front.

Also, a good many White House leaks are approved of, and perhaps even originate with, people Scaramucci can’t fire. That includes one Donald Trump, aka the Leaker in Chief, aka POTUS. Sometimes it makes sense to let a piece of information — for example, a trial balloon concerning a tentative policy shift — come out via leak instead of formal public announcement so that it can be quietly quashed in the event of negative public response.

Scaramucci will fail in his boast. The White House will continue to leak like a sieve. He’ll either get used to it and turn his attention to other matters, or get fired over it, or both.

That’s a good thing. It’s exactly what Scaramucci would want if he subscribed to the high school civics version of politics. Per that mythos, “the people” are boss and Donald Trump and Anthony Scaramucci are mere hirelings. Any information they have, we’re entitled to, and leaks are as good a way to get it to us as any.

Of course Scaramucci and other members of the political class don’t believe that for a minute. To them, “the people” are so many piggy banks to be emptied and cows to be milked in pursuit of power.

Fortunately for us, reality has come into alignment with the mythos. The age of government secrecy is over. If Scaramucci doesn’t believe me, he might want to ask Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange.  As Jesus said, “there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested; neither was any thing kept secret, but that it should come abroad.”

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter:[email protected]) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

PUBLICATION/CITATION HISTORY