Harvard Magazine: The Watchers

InsightaaS: Harvard Magazine (as distinct from HBR) is an organ promising to “mine Harvard’s vast resources and to offer up their finding in a satisfying manner.” It isn’t a technology or business magazine (its current issue includes a feature “on the Jane Austen cult” and a photojournalism portrayal of refugees in Europe), which makes “The Watchers” even more remarkable.

The Watchers is a long form (6000+ words) examination of “assaults on privacy in America” that analyzes the implications of the aggregation and use of data. It is organized into sections whose headers articulate the broader meaning of the text:

  • Security: “We Have Lost Control.” Representative passages:
    • “Door locks, tall fences, and burglar alarms work well in the physical world. The problem, [cybersecurity fellow Bruce Schneier] explains, is that “in security, technology scales badly.” If a burglar gets past a lock to rob a single house in a community of 100,000 people, that may be a tolerable risk. But anyone who finds a flaw in all digital locks could break into every home. “What happens,” Schneier asks, “when systems become connected such that our risks are connected?”
    • “‘The increased interconnectivity of the world we are living in,’ explained [Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the NSA and head of U.S. Cyber Command], has led to ‘a level of vulnerability that we don’t truly understand.'”
  • Openness: “We Have to be Extremely Skeptical” Representative passages:
    • “Providing security to a range of companies has led [software engineer Ben Adida] to discover how easy it is for small companies to err when implementing and defending the security of their systems, whether in cryptography, access control, network-level security, or in the internal audit processes used to ensure data is compartmentalized.”
    • “We need to rethink how to defend that data through a combination of legal and technical means.”
  • Confidentiality: “Privacy Is about Accountability”
    • Representative passages: “Privacy is about accountability,” [Marc Roternberg of non-profit organization EPIC] says. “It’s about the fairness of decisionmaking. It’s about holding large government actors and private companies accountable for their decisionmaking. It turns out to be an extraordinarily powerful and comprehensive human-rights claim, particularly in the digital age, because so much about us is based on our data.”
    • “We need privacy law for everything else: for the things that we don’t have the physical ability to control. When you give sensitive test information to your doctor, for example, it’s no longer in your control. The credit card company has all your transactional records. What are you going to do? Nothing. That’s when we start to ask questions about what type of safeguards are in place to protect our personal information held by others.”
  • Discrimination: “Algorithmic Accountability”
    • Representative passages: “If an employer Googles an applicant’s name and ads pop up implying that there is an arrest record, [professor of government and technology in residence Latanya Sweeney] says, that is enough to trigger a federal discrimination investigation. “
    • “’If, through their practices, technology companies are dominating the online experience’ and shaping people’s experiences of the Internet, [Sweeney] says, “then it’s those practices that have to be addressed, or at least connected to…societal norms. Just because Google or Facebook implement business practices and technology together in a package in a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the only way.”
  • Commerce: “Surveillance Capitalism”
    • “'[Google] didn’t start by saying, ‘Well, we can make a lot of money assaulting privacy,’ [Shoshanna Zuboff, professor of business administration emerita] continues. Instead, “trial and error and experimentation and adapting their capabilities in new directions” led them to sell ads based on personal information about users…Google engineers discovered “a way of using their capabilities in the context of search to do something utterly different from anything they had imagined when they started out.” Instead of using the personal data to benefit the sources of that information, they commodified it, using what they knew about people to match them with paying advertisers. As the advertising money flowed into Google, it became a ‘powerful feedback loop of almost instantaneous success in these new markets.'”
    • “Surveillance capitalism, driven by the profit motive, ‘has been able to gather to itself concentrations of knowledge and power that exceed anything imaginable even a few years ago,’ [Zuboff] says. ‘One of its consequences is the deletion of privacy. But if we fight this only on the grounds of privacy, we’re bound to meet with constant frustration and limited success. This is an economic logic that must delete privacy in order to be successful.'”

To read the entire (highly recommended) article, follow this link: http://harvardmagazine.com/2017/01/the-watchers

Thanks to Nicholas Carr, who highlighted this article in a post on his Rough Type blog.


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