Buying Into the Surveillance State: the Internet of Things (and Italian cold fusion)

On one hand I like Bruce Schneier’s essays because he points out the really horrifying potentials in a lot of things. (Here, the point is simple: don’t buy smart-everything)

On the other hand, he speaks as if these things are inevitable. As if it’s guaranteed that the world will transition from the Huxley-Lite “incomplete totalitarianism” of today to a tech-supported Huxley-Orwell marriage of function and surveillance.

Frankly, that only makes it more likely the latter will come about. And I really hate that attitude. Given the choice between a surveillance state and not having shoes that tell you how many calories you burned… who goes and buys the shoes?

Case in point: a number of murmurings around the internet that Facebook is steadily losing popularity among the younger generation of Internet users. (among others: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/05/24/one_in_ten_uk_facebook_users_leave_network/)

Which brings me to an utterly absurd idea* that nevertheless bugs the hell out of me.

There is Łobaczewski’s observation (and similar ideas) that totalitarian police states force a new kind of connection, a sort of invisible network between normal people. But if you want that kind of a connection, go to a rave and stare at the strobe light with fifty of your closest friends. It is emphatically — and by definition! — not a better way of keeping “the 1%” in check.

* (Used obliquely. The idea of it being actively desirable is too prima facie insane for most to say it outright with a straight face, but yes, I have seen this argument)

Totalitarian police states and all other forms of ultimate domination by the 1% carry a terrible emotional and psychological cost that nobody in their right mind would choose or allow. Learning nonverbal communication to survive the secret police is not a reason to create the secret police.

And that holds even if you drop the whip and just go for the Łobaczewski network. Not everyone wants to be on your global buddy list, and forcing people on ends poorly.

(You’d think this would be obvious… but then again large parts of humanity have a history of demanding kings and priests and other abstraction layers that don’t take “not my kink” for an answer. I feel like this is the whole point of national borders.)

Cold fusion: An interesting exercise in close and critical reading of scientific research. The “Rossi E-Cat” is a device that claims to use cold fusion (or, at least, transmutation) to produce lots of energy very cheaply. The former head of the Swedish Skeptics Society and a number of other scientists from Sweden and Italy have all now tested the device and say it’s for real. The testing conditions were so constrained that others say the device is probably still fake. Decide for yourself:

http://phys.org/news/2013-05-rossi-e-cat-energy-density-higher.html
http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/05/21/the-e-cat-is-back-and-people-are-still-falling-for-it/

http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/05/the_eyes_and_ea.html

“The Internet has turned into a massive surveillance tool. We’re constantly monitored on the Internet by hundreds of companies — both familiar and unfamiliar. Everything we do there is recorded, collected, and collated — sometimes by corporations wanting to sell us stuff and sometimes by governments wanting to keep an eye on us.[…]

In the near term, at least, the sheer volume of data will limit the sorts of conclusions that can be drawn. The invasiveness of these technologies depends on asking the right questions. For example, if a private investigator is watching you in the physical world, she or he might observe odd behavior and investigate further based on that. Such serendipitous observations are harder to achieve when you’re filtering databases based on pre-programmed queries. In other words, it’s easier to ask questions about what you purchased and where you were than to ask what you did with your purchases and why you went where you did. These analytical limitations also mean that companies like Google and Facebook will benefit more from the Internet of Things than individuals — not only because they have access to more data, but also because they have more sophisticated query technology. And as technology continues to improve, the ability to automatically analyze this massive data stream will improve.

In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days — and nights — with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied. Even now, it feels a lot like science fiction.

Will you know any of this? Will your friends? It depends. Lots of these devices have, and will have, privacy settings. But these settings are remarkable not in how much privacy they afford, but in how much they deny. Access will likely be similar to your browsing habits, your files stored on Dropbox, your searches on Google, and your text messages from your phone. All of your data is saved by those companies — and many others — correlated, and then bought and sold without your knowledge or consent. You’d think that your privacy settings would keep random strangers from learning everything about you, but it only keeps random strangers who don’t pay for the privilege — or don’t work for the government and have the ability to demand the data. Power is what matters here: you’ll be able to keep the powerless from invading your privacy, but you’ll have no ability to prevent the powerful from doing it again and again.”

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