Why privacy matters
This is the crux of the work on which I have been singularly focused for the last 16 months, the question of why privacy matters, a question that has arisen in the context of a global debate, enabled by the revelations of Edward Snowden that the United States and its partners, unbeknownst to the entire world, has converted the Internet, once heralded as an unprecedented tool of liberation and democratization, into an unprecedented zone of mass, indiscriminate surveillance.
Now, there’s all kinds of things to say about that mentality, the first of which is that the people who say that, who say that privacy isn’t really important, they don’t actually believe it, and the way you know that they don’t actually believe it is that while they say with their words that privacy doesn’t matter, with their actions, they take all kinds of steps to safeguard their privacy. They put passwords on their email and their social media accounts, they put locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, all steps designed to prevent other people from entering what they consider their private realm and knowing what it is that they don’t want other people to know.
Over the last 16 months, as I’ve debated this issue around the world, every single time somebody has said to me, “I don’t really worry about invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide.” I always say the same thing to them. I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.”
Here’s how we take back the Internet
The best way to understand PRISM, because there’s been a little bit of controversy, is to first talk about what PRISM isn’t. Much of the debate in the U.S. has been about metadata. They’ve said it’s just metadata, it’s just metadata, and they’re talking about a specific legal authority called Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That allows sort of a warrantless wiretapping, mass surveillance of the entire country’s phone records, things like that – who you’re talking to, when you’re talking to them, where you traveled. These are all metadata events. PRISM is about content. It’s a program through which the government could compel corporate America, it could deputize corporate America to do its dirty work for the NSA. And even though some of these companies did resist, even though some of them – I believe Yahoo was one of them — challenged them in court, they all lost, because it was never tried by an open court. They were only tried by a secret court. And something that we’ve seen, something about the PRISM program that’s very concerning to me is, there’s been a talking point in the U.S. government where they’ve said 15 federal judges have reviewed these programs and found them to be lawful, but what they don’t tell you is those are secret judges in a secret court based on secret interpretations of law that’s considered 34,000 warrant requests over 33 years, and in 33 years only rejected 11 government requests. These aren’t the people that we want deciding what the role of corporate America in a free and open Internet should be.
It is. I think it’s very true. This is not a left or right issue. Our basic freedoms, and when I say our, I don’t just mean Americans, I mean people around the world, it’s not a partisan issue. These are things that all people believe, and it’s up to all of us to protect them, and to people who have seen and enjoyed a free and open Internet, it’s up to us to preserve that liberty for the next generation to enjoy, and if we don’t change things, if we don’t stand up to make the changes we need to do to keep the Internet safe, not just for us but for everyone, we’re going to lose that, and that would be a tremendous loss, not just for us, but for the world.
Meet the founder of the blog revolution
The founding mother of the blog revolution, Movable Type’s Mena Trott, talks about the early days of blogging, when she realized that giving regular people the power to share our lives online is the key to building a friendlier, more connected world.
Meet the SixthSense interaction
I’m wearing a camera, just a simple web cam, a portable, battery-powered projection system with a little mirror. These components communicate to my cell phone in my pocket which acts as the communication and computation device. And in the video here we see my student Pranav Mistry, who’s really the genius who’s been implementing and designing this whole system. And we see how this system lets him walk up to any surface and start using his hands to interact with the information that is projected in front of him. The system tracks the four significant fingers. In this case, he’s wearing simple marker caps that you may recognize. But if you want a more stylish version, you could also paint your nails in different colors.
And the camera basically tracks these four fingers and recognizes any gestures that he’s making so he can just go to, for example, a map of Long Beach, zoom in and out, etc. The system also recognizes iconic gestures such as the “take a picture” gesture, and then takes a picture of whatever is in front of you. And when he then walks back to the Media Lab, he can just go up to any wall and project all the pictures that he’s taken, sort through them and organize them, and re-size them, etc., again using all natural gestures.
Our loss of wisdom
“Practical wisdom,” Aristotle told us, “is the combination of moral will and moral skill.” A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician – using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.
The best computer interface? Maybe … your hands
A computer is an incredibly powerful means of creative expression, but for the most part, that expression is confined to the screens of our laptops and mobile phones. And I’d like to tell you a story about bringing this power of the computer to move things around and interact with us off of the screen and into the physical world in which we live.
And when you think about it, this makes a lot of sense, that using specialized physical objects would help people use an interface more easily. I mean, our hands and our minds are optimized to think about and interact with tangible objects. Think about which you find easier to use, a physical keyboard or an onscreen keyboard like on a phone?
The complex relationship between data and design in UX
Engineering a website is equal parts vision and adaptation … responding both to how users navigate the site and what new goals of the organization have emerged. Rochelle King, the senior designer at Spotify, was recently challenged to combine the many mismatched interfaces of Spotify into a single harmonious layout. She walks us through the process of redesigning a major website, revealing best practices for navigating the relationship between designers, data and the people for whom it is built.
The ethics of collecting data
One big ethical question looms over the excitement about the potential of big data: how do we maintain privacy while gleaning insight from all of this collected information? Marie Wallace offers some fresh thinking on the topic, such as radical transparency on how retailers use ads to target certain demographics.
The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you
Location information can be very sensitive. If you drive your car around the United States, it can reveal if you go to a therapist, attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, if you go to church or if you don’t go to church. And when that information about you is combined with the same information about everyone else, the government can gain a detailed portrait of how private citizens interact.
One of the key technologies driving mass location tracking is the innocuous-sounding Automatic License Plate Reader. If you haven’t seen one, it’s probably because you didn’t know what to look for – they’re everywhere. Mounted on roads or on police cars, Automatic License Plate Readers capture images of every passing car and convert the license plate into machine-readable text so that they can be checked against hot lists of cars potentially wanted for wrongdoing.
When Mike Katz-Lacabe asked his local police department for information about the plate reader data they had on him, this is what they got: in addition to the date, time and location, the police department had photographs that captured where he was going and often who he was with. The second photo from the top is a picture of Mike and his two daughters getting out of their car in their own driveway. The government has hundreds of photos like this about Mike going about his daily life. And if you drive a car in the United States, I would bet money that they have photographs like this of you going about your daily life.