Why BlackBerry Got Banned

Posted: September 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Business, South Asia, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a journo friend about the moves by several governments–first the UAE, then Saudi Arabia, then India–to ban BlackBerry because its maker (Canadian company Research in Motion) would not grant these states unencrypted access to users’ correspondence. Citing the locations of BlackBerry servers (in Canada and the UK) they alleged that Western powers could use the technology to spy on the East.¬†Both privacy hawks and businesspeople cried foul, even more so when RIM agreed to open one server center Saudi Arabia and prepared to negotiate a deal with India to keep its business alive.

My friend wanted to know what the story was really ‘about.’ Was it–as the bans’ promoters insisted–about how much data our governments in the West already have? Was it about the fact that BlackBerry IS encrypted in the first place when so much other data is not (something many consumers seemed not to know)? Was it about the fact that democratic India was following the pattern set by more draconian regimes? Or, he was asking me, was it about something else entirely? Here’s what I told him:

“To my mind, these bans represent a kind of clash between the technology community’s perception of itself as being essentially above governments and the reality that all international business is subject to and inextricable from international politics. What is especially remarkable about this is the degree to which tech firms–which are still heavily consolidated in the U.S.–gladly do business with the U.S. government,¬†while maintaining the idea of being essentially above regulation. In particular, there is a cozy symbiosis between the Valley and the defense establishment, and it leads some in the developing world to think of all tech firms as proxies for the U.S. government. Given that, it is also a story about developing country governments demonstrating the regulatory muscle not to be talked down to by the West, about showing–mostly to their own public–that globalization does not mean colonization. It’s also important to keep in mind that while BlackBerry messaging IS encrypted, it’s not that governments elsewhere in the world are necessarily more comfortable with that than the countries issuing these bans. Rather is is that here in the West, governments can often subpoena for access to specific correspondence if it is necessary for a court case. In countries where that kind of subpoena power doesn’t exist, governments might try to hack systems extrajudicially, and then if that fails, proceed to shut down what they cannot penetrate.”

One thing this story is NOT about, however, as the above should indicate, is privacy: we lost that a long time ago.


Google is not God

Posted: March 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Journalism, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I have been vocal on this blog about my Google-agnosticism. I don’t think Googleization is the solution to all business models though I do think the Internet represents more opportunity than cost to many industries. And though I do worry about digital privacy, I don’t think the firm’s digitization of our lives has to be fascist in its outcomes.

I’m usually sanguine about the new digital order, because I believe in the basic legal structures of a functioning market economy: the checks placed on any one company by the requirement to compete with others and the checks placed on all companies by government should, in theory, protect us from total Googleization and the violation of our privacy rights.
Here’s the problem: Google has become a monopoly and the entity entrusted to crack down on monopolies–the State–is dependent on various forms of digital data mining, at which Google excels. Now government has colluded with trusts and cartels before, but usually there is a body of journalists and consumers who pressure them to right the wrong. The real problem with the Google is how much civil society has cheerled monopolization: Read the rest of this entry »

The End of Forgetting

Posted: January 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Politics, Technology, Video | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.


The Internet Police

Posted: April 29th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Technology | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Throughout the Web revolution of the past decade, pundits and journalists have angsted endlessly about the implications of new technologies on privacy and the capacity for unwanted “Big Brother” surveillance or dangerous identity theft. Counter-arguments from tech-geeks have mainly centered on the entertainment potential of Google Earth or Facebook-stalking. Breaking the impasse means proving that the new technologies are more than a toy, but a useful and socially constructive tool.

The proof has arrived. Facebook and Google are putting their surveillance and information capacities to work fighting crime. A new Facebook list of suspected war criminals encourages users around the world to post information about sightings. A new Google Earth map marks crime scenes and likely locations.

How effective this will be, however, is still an open question. After all, criminals have computers too and it can’t help to tell them where we think they are. Not to mention that the Facebook lists wanted felons rather than simply suspects: due process dictates the individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully, the officials in charge will follow the law books over the Facebook.

On the other hand, there are interesting principles behind this technology: crowdsourcing, global technologies as a form of international law/world governance, linking virtual networks back to the physical world. As imperfect as this particular project is, these are the general contours of the coming era. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Facebook and Google would be the first to sign up.