Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Watching as the cyber world matures

If, as military thinkers believe, the cyber world is a new “domain” of warfare, then the tectonics of this space need outlining. On the internet, every detail and moving part is controlled by the private sector. There are no borders, only users.

One of the key differences between the physical domains and cyber is the lack of a baseline understanding of the latter. The other domains have mountains, waves, winds and solar flares, but in cyber every limiting, “natural” feature is still being organised. Those building its foundations are companies such as Google, and all construction needs materials. In this case, the material is data.

Google claims it wants to do no evil, whatever that means. And yet the company is indexing all files on every user’s computer, reporting it all back to its servers, outlining the tectonic edges. Those servers keep a user’s search history and can tie it to an individual IP address. Google claims to delete the data after a while, but why would it want to keep it in the first place?

It wants every website to feed advertisements because this allows Google not only to keep a person’s search history, but also track them as they hop between sites loading new ads. Google may not do anything with this information now, but once the domain is organised, someone will look at all this data and see potential.

Let me draw a diagram of this tectonic. Everyone has an IP address. Google, through its various software, can send a listing of the contents of any computer tied to that IP address to its servers. Google also tracks search history. As people surf the internet, Google analytics adds the browsing history connected to this IP address to a central database and to everything else that address does.

Anybody can register for Google ads. But if they do, Google can attach the IP address to a person’s real name and possibly to a bank account. Gmail connects indexed IP information to a specific userID, along with an index of all the account’s emails (it scans the emails to deliver ads).

If Google wants to know how much time people spend on computers doing a task its software could be programmed to watch and report. Perhaps Google wants to know what percentage of a hard drive stores photos. It can do that too. If a computer has a webcam, this can be programmed to wait until a person starts typing, then take a picture. Maybe it watches for other website logins, linking those with the existing IP address-indexed information piecing together a picture.

Google doesn't want to index the internet, it wants to index you. Now replace “Google” in the above paragraph with “GCSB.” It is equally concerning when a company spies on people as when the government does. Actually, it’s worse. The New Zealand bill of rights protects a citizen’s rights against the government. The only thing protecting one’s rights against Google is its various terms of service, all of which include the clause those terms can be changed at any time.

So the tectonics are outlined. Just because Google and others haven’t yet linked everything together in a giant database doesn't mean they never will. That information is valuable. And right now, Google is beholden to no one other than shareholders who want the stock to keep rising – good or evil be damned. Consider, though, how a company with this much knowledge about citizens is accruing a serious trove of actual power in all domains, not only cyber.

Google wants to run its code on every computer and webpage in existence. As the domain gets organised, with all its idiosyncrasies, there is some measure of reciprocal benefit for company and user alike. But over the long run, this indexing may not be for user’s benefit. The philosophy underpinning all this is that living in public makes people less likely to be hypocrites.

Of course, this is completely ridiculous. Hypocrisy is part of that unholy trinity – lying, racism, and hypocrisy – that only children care about. What is more interesting is how anathema hypocrisy is perceived to be. So what if someone is a hypocrite? People who want online behaviour to be public do so because they are in the majority and it is the core of Google’s project (but not only Google).

Yet protection from the majority is precisely the reason for privacy. Not putting anything online because someone assumes they are being watched, and its corollary "I've got nothing to hide," are vacuous arguments. The entire appeal of the social internet was its liberation – not only could people be their true selves, they could be anyone. This was made possible due to the difficulty of connecting a virtual identity to one’s real identity.

The Google project – the tectonic outlining – suggests people will live a conforming, repressed life online and in maybe in the physical too. Pushing back the boundaries of freedom requires those on the other side of that boundary pulling it as users push. The struggle for freedom is impossible without this dynamic.

Every black person in front of a 1960's southern bus, every marijuana smoker, every gay couple living under the spectre of sodomy laws is a criminal in the eyes of the law. In order to change laws, justice demands people be protected from enforcement of unjust laws. And that requires privacy.

That our credit, medical and work histories are available to the highest bidder is not a justification to open up the rest of our lives. This situation should be an anomaly demanding correction back to a norm. But what is that norm? How can we know when there is no baseline? As companies organise this new domain the real worry is not Google’s project, but who buys Google.

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