Moral Panics

Smart Device Paranoia

by on October 5, 2015 · 0 comments

The idea that the world needs further dumbing down was really the last thing on my mind. Yet this is exactly what Jay Stanley argues for in a recent post on Free Future, the ACLU tech blog.

Specifically, Stanley is concerned by the proliferation of “smart devices,” from smart homes to smart watches, and the enigmatic algorithms that power them. Exhibit A: The Volkswagen “smart control devices” designed to deliberately mis-measure diesel emissions. Far from an isolated case, Stanley extrapolates the Volkswagen scandal into a parable about the dangers of smart devices more generally, and calls for the recognition of “the virtue of dumbness”:

When we flip a coin, its dumbness is crucial. It doesn’t know that the visiting team is the massive underdog, that the captain’s sister just died of cancer, and that the coach is at risk of losing his job. It’s the coin’s very dumbness that makes everyone turn to it as a decider. … But imagine the referee has replaced it with a computer programmed to perform a virtual coin flip. There’s a reason we recoil at that idea. If we were ever to trust a computer with such a task, it would only be after a thorough examination of the computer’s code, mainly to find out whether the computer’s decision is based on “knowledge” of some kind, or whether it is blind as it should be.

While recoiling is a bit melodramatic, it’s clear from this that “dumbness” is not even the key issue at stake. What Stanley is really concerned about is biasedness or partiality (what he dubs “neutrality anxiety”), which is not unique to “dumb” devices like coins, nor is the opacity. A physical coin can be biased, a programmed coin can be fair, and at first glance the fairness of a physical coin is not really anymore obvious.

Yet this is the argument Stanley uses to justify his proposed requirement that all smart device code be open to the public for scrutiny going forward. Based on a knee-jerk commitment to transparency, he gives zero weight to the social benefit of allowing software creators a level of trade secrecy, especially as a potential substitute to patent and copyright protections. This is all the more ironic, given that Volkswagen used existing copyright law to hide its own malfeasance.

More importantly, the idea that the only way to check a virtual coin is to look at the source code is a serious non-sequitur. After all, in-use testing was how Volkswagen was actually caught in the end. What matters, in other words, is how the coin behaves in large and varied samples. In either the virtual or physical case, the best and least intrusive way to check a coin is to simply do thousands of flips. But what takes hours with a dumb coin takes a fraction of a second with a virtual coin. So I know which I prefer.

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It was my pleasure this week to be invited to deliver some comments at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) to coincide with the release of their latest study, “The Privacy Panic Cycle: A Guide to Public Fears About New Technologies.” The goal of the new ITIF report, which was co-authored by Daniel Castro and Alan McQuinn, is to highlight the dangers associated with “the cycle of panic that occurs when privacy advocates make outsized claims about the privacy risks associated with new technologies. Those claims then filter through the news media to policymakers and the public, causing frenzies of consternation before cooler heads prevail, people come to understand and appreciate innovative new products and services, and everyone moves on.” (p. 1)

As Castro and McQuinn describe it, the privacy panic cycle “charts how perceived privacy fears about a technology grow rapidly at the beginning, but eventually decline over time.” They divide this cycle into four phases: Trusting Beginnings, Rising Panic, Deflating Fears, and Moving On. Here’s how they depict it in an image:

Privacy Panic Cycle - 1


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Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times posted an interesting story yesterday noting how, “Technology Has Made Life Different, but Not Necessarily More Stressful.” Her essay builds on a new study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University on “Social Media and the Cost of Caring.” Miller’s essay and this new Pew/Rutgers study indirectly make a point that I am always discussing in my own work, but that is often ignored or downplayed by many technological critics, namely: We humans have repeatedly proven quite good at adapting to technological change, even when it entails some heartburn along the way.

The major takeaway of the Pew/Rutgers study was that, “social media users are not any more likely to feel stress than others, but there is a subgroup of social media users who are more aware of stressful events in their friends’ lives and this subgroup of social media users does feel more stress.” Commenting on the study, Miller of the Times notes:

Fear of technology is nothing new. Telephones, watches and televisions were similarly believed to interrupt people’s lives and pressure them to be more productive. In some ways they did, but the benefits offset the stressors. New technology is making our lives different, but not necessarily more stressful than they would have been otherwise. “It’s yet another example of how we overestimate the effect these technologies are having in our lives,” said Keith Hampton, a sociologist at Rutgers and an author of the study.  . . .  Just as the telephone made it easier to maintain in-person relationships but neither replaced nor ruined them, this recent research suggests that digital technology can become a tool to augment the relationships humans already have.

I found this of great interest because I have written about how humans assimilate new technologies into their lives and become more resilient in the process as they learn various coping techniques. Continue reading →

As 2014 draws to a close, we take a look back at the most-read posts from the past year at The Technology Liberation Front. Thank you for reading, and enjoy. Continue reading →

I recently did a presentation for Capitol Hill staffers about emerging technology policy issues (driverless cars, the “Internet of Things,” wearable tech, private drones, “biohacking,” etc) and the various policy issues they would give rise to (privacy, safety, security, economic disruptions, etc.). The talk is derived from my new little book on “Permissionless Innovation,” but in coming months I will be releasing big papers on each of the topics discussed here.

Additional Reading:

Patrick Ruffini, political strategist, author, and President of Engage, a digital agency in Washington, DC, discusses his latest book with coauthors David Segal and David Moon: Hacking Politics: How Geeks, Progressives, the Tea Party, Gamers, Anarchists, and Suits Teamed Up to Defeat SOPA and Save the Internet. Ruffini covers the history behind SOPA, its implications for Internet freedom, the “Internet blackout” in January of 2012, and how the threat of SOPA united activists, technology companies, and the broader Internet community.


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It was, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, déjà vu all over again.  Fielding calls last week from journalists about reports the NSA had been engaged in massive and secret data mining of phone records and Internet traffic, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone was surprised by the so-called revelations.

Not only had the surveillance been going on for years, the activity had been reported all along—at least outside the mainstream media.  The programs involved have been the subject of longstanding concern and vocal criticism by advocacy groups on both the right and the left.

For those of us who had been following the story for a decade, this was no “bombshell.”  No “leak” was required.  There was no need for an “expose” of what had long since been exposed.

As the Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez and others reminded us, the NSA’s surveillance activities, and many of the details breathlessly reported last week, weren’t even secret.  They come up regularly in Congress, during hearings, for example, about renewal of the USA Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the principal laws that govern the activity.

In those hearings, civil libertarians (Republicans and Democrats) show up to complain about the scope of the law and its secret enforcement, and are shot down as being soft on terrorism.  The laws are renewed and even extended, and the story goes back to sleep.

But for whatever reason, the mainstream media, like the corrupt Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” collectively found itself last week “shocked, shocked” to discover widespread, warrantless electronic surveillance by the U.S. government.  Surveillance they’ve known about for years.

Let me be clear.  As one of the long-standing critics of these programs, and especially their lack of oversight and transparency, I have no objection to renewed interest in the story, even if the drama with which it is being reported smells more than a little sensational with a healthy whiff of opportunism. Continue reading →

Today, Jerry Brito, Adam Thierer and I filed comments on the FAA’s proposed privacy rules for “test sites” for the integration of commercial drones into domestic airspace. I’ve been excited about this development ever since I learned that Congress had ordered the FAA to complete the integration by September 2015. Airspace is a vastly underutilized resource, and new technologies are just now becoming available that will enable us to make the most of it.

In our comments, we argue that airspace, like the Internet, could be a revolutionary platform for innovation:

Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet,” credits “permissionless innovation” for the economic benefits that the Internet has generated. As an open platform, the Internet allows entrepreneurs to try new business models and offer new services without seeking the approval of regulators beforehand.

Like the Internet, airspace is a platform for commercial and social innovation. We cannot accurately predict to what uses it will be put when restrictions on commercial use of UASs are lifted. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is vital that innovation and entrepreneurship be allowed to proceed without ex ante barriers imposed by regulators.

And in Wired today, I argue that preemptive privacy regulation is unnecessary and unwise:

Regulation at this juncture requires our over-speculating about which types of privacy violations might arise. Since many of these harms may never materialize, pre-emptive regulation is likely to overprotect privacy at the expense of innovation.

Frankly, it wouldn’t even work. Imagine if we had tried to comprehensively regulate online privacy before allowing commercial use of the internet. We wouldn’t have even known how to. We wouldn’t have had the benefit of understanding how online commerce works, nor could we have anticipated the rise of social networking and related phenomena.

I expect us all to hear more about commercial drones in the near future. See Jerry’s piece in Reason last month or Larry Downes’s great post at the HBR blog for more.

When the smoke cleared and I found myself half caught-up on sleep, the information and sensory overload that was CES 2013 had ended.

There was a kind of split-personality to how I approached the event this year. Monday through Wednesday was spent in conference tracks, most of all the excellent Innovation Policy Summit put together by the Consumer Electronics Association. (Kudos again to Gary Shapiro, Michael Petricone and their team of logistics judo masters.)

The Summit has become an important annual event bringing together legislators, regulators, industry and advocates to help solidify the technology policy agenda for the coming year and, in this case, a new Congress.

I spent Thursday and Friday on the show floor, looking in particular for technologies that satisfy what I coined the The Law of Disruption: social, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially.

What I found, as I wrote in a long post-mortem for Forbes, is that such technologies are well-represented at CES, but are mostly found at the edges of the show–literally. Continue reading →