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Big Brother IS Watching, So is Your Spouse

Honolulu Museum of Art
Honolulu Museum of Art

Over the holidays, did you post happy pictures about your personal life on social media?  Did you do any online shopping, or use GPS?  Did you think at all about what these activities do to your digital profile?  If you did, Edward Snowden’s revelations about government spying probably influenced you.  Snowden will be a panel member in an upcoming immersive at the Doris Duke Theatre that looks at our lives under surveillance.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
Eye/Machine I,II,III and I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts War at a Distance, films by Harun Farocki, will be screened free on Sunday, January 7, 2018 as part of the Classified program. His work deals with images, image processing, and how viewers are influenced.
Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project, legal advisor to NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden discusses who uses surveillance technology, why, how it impacts our lives, and what his biggest fear is.

Classified: Art + Surveillance begins tonight and runs through January 11th at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.  Films, workshops, and a panel discussion are all part of Classifiedprogramming January 5-11, 2018. 

The In-Focus Talk panel features key players in the surveillance technology arena:  Edward Snowden via video chat, Ben Wizner, ACLU attorney and Edward Snowden’s lawyer, Kate Crawford who studies social implications of data systems, and artist-journalist Trevor Paglen.  The moderator is award winning artist Hasan Elahi, whose work exposes issues involved in surveillance, migration, and citizenship.

As part of Classified programming, those who attend the In-Focus Talk will be offered a personalized self-guided tour through the museum.  The tour will be designed using face detection and other surveillance technologies by Pas de Chocolat, a local group specializing in human/technology interfaces.

"The great story of our time about surveillance is that surveillance used to be extremely expensive, now it’s trivially cheap," says Ben Wizner, Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project based in NYC.  He’s also principle attorney and legal advisor to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden since July 2013.

Wizner:  It used to be that the default was a kind of practical obscurity.  Our lives were observed by the people immediately around us but by no one else.  Now the default is universal tracking and storage. That’s because the cost of storing data has gone from very expensive to almost free.  And the surveillance economy as I call it, basically the tools we use in our everyday lives, are leaving a comprehensive record and trail of our intimate activity and that information is available not just to corporations but to governments.

Wizner:  For the first time in human history, it is both financially and technologically feasible for governments and corporations to have almost complete records of our lives.  And the law has not kept up with that transformative new world we live in.

Credit ACLU
Ben Wizner is Director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project based in NYC. He’s also principle attorney and legal advisor to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden since July 2013.

Wizner:  To me that’s the most important aspect of the Snowden revelations.  We knew that these kinds of capabilities were being built, we didn’t’ know to what extent they had already been deployed.  That the NSA was already intercepting most of the world’s internet traffic, was keeping records of every American phone call despite having said publicly they were not doing those kinds of things. 

Wizner:  So now at a minimum when the public confronts a debate, like the one we’re having now over whether the NSA’s spy power should be renewed, we’re doing it for the most part with our eyes open.  We’re doing it with more complete knowledge of the government’s activities.

Would you agree information is the new oil?

Wizner:  I think that’s a fascinating comment.  You could say that it’s the new oil and you could say that it’s the new land.  You have corporations and you have companies that are trying to get this information.

To what end?

Wizner:  We don’t always know.  Keith Alexander who was head of the NSA during the critical years right after 9/11.  His mantra was, collect it all, the uses will follow.  We’ll figure out later what we can use it for but in the meantime, let’s build this infrastructure and store all of this information.  Maybe later on we’ll come up with a tool that helps us search it in the appropriate way.  It can’t hurt us and can only help us to have this.  Google and Amazon have a very different idea, which is, we’re going to find new ways to make money that we haven’t even devised yet.  And the most important thing for us is to hold on to as much of this personal information as possible.

Wizner:  We need to understand, though, this is a new world that is being created.  I don’t think we’ve quite caught up in our thinking about this.  My friend Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and security analyst likes to say, Remember how you feel when you’re driving right alongside to a police car.  Imagine having that feeling 24 hours a day.  Some people might say I feel very secure driving next to a police car.  But most people feel they’re being very observed.  We don’t want to live in a world where drones with cameras are recording every time we walk through the park and hold somebody’s hand.  We certainly don’t want government cameras in our bedrooms and inside our homes.  And yet, how many of us now are buying from Google or Amazon these devices that make recordings in our own homes?  How much have we thought through the consequences of putting that kind of digital spy into our most intimate spaces. 

But it’s so convenient.

Wizner:  Well a lot of it is convenient, so there are going to be tradeoffs.  The best we can do is use law, use policy, to try to mitigate some of those harms.  My view is not that the police should never get to know where my phone is, but that they should have to get a warrant from a judge.  Just to create a little bit of legal friction so that we can go back to a world where if we’re not suspected of wrongdoing, our activities will not be constantly available to law enforcement.

I feel my relationship with the rest of society is changing!

Wizner:  That’s right and I think we need to remember the people who wrote the Bill of Rights were more worried about a government that had unlimited power than they were about the possibility that a bad guy would get away.  There’s no way to read the Bill of Rights without recognizing that it’s a kind of anti-efficiency manifesto.  It’s designed to make things more difficult for government, not easier for government.  We’re so used to saying, if something will make us safer, we automatically need to do it as a society but that’s not actually what a constitutional government is.  We accept some cost for being able to live free and independent lives, not tracked at all times.

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
Risk, a film by Laura Poitras, explores the life and motivations of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Risk screens with Citizenfour, and both showings are free as part of Classified programming, Saturday, January 4, 2018, at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.

Wizner:  What I’m worried about is that the technological developments happened in front of our eyes but below the radar at the same time.  We were being fed all this convenience, and we were not being told a compelling story about the cost we might pay for that convenience.  I think Snowden did a lot to open our eyes.  After Snowden, anybody typing a search query into Google at least thought for a second about who might be reading this. 

Wizner contends that consciousness is an important first step to being able to take back rights and privacy.  He also notes that use of personal spyware and surveillance methods are expanding in the general population.

Wizner:  To me, we need to be talking about resilience and not fear.  We need to remember our national anthem ends with land of the free and home of the brave, that those words are in the same sentence.  That freedom is courage, not fear, and that there are things we can do to reduce our risk but will never eliminate it.

Wizner:  There was a saying in the Vietnam War that we had to burn down the village in order to save it.  The only thing I’ve ever really been worried about with respect to terrorism is that we would burn down our village in order to save it; that we would change the nature of the kind of society that we are in order to guard ourselves against this non-existential threat.

Wizner:  We went much too far as a country after 9/11.  Certainly Trump would like us to go back to some of those policies, like detaining people without trial in Guantanamo, exposing prisoners to torture and waterboarding.  I hope that most of us understand we went astray and those kinds of actions made us weaker and not stronger.

Wizner:  One aspect of surveillance technology is that while it has made these powerful institutions like government spy agencies and Silicon Valley corporations more powerful, it has also made individuals more powerful.  There’s been a kind of arms race between the technology of surveillance and the technology of resistance.  

Wizner points to the increasing number of people using encrypted messaging apps, for example, What’s App, Signal, or Telegram, which is now facing accusations of not being as secure as it maintains.   Taylour Chang is Director of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre and curator for the Classifiedprogram.

Honolulu Museum of Art
Credit Honolulu Museum of Art
George Lucas made his debut as a director in 1971 with THX-1138. This film, starring Donald Pleasence and Robert Duvall, presents a future in which love and individual thought are verboten.

Chang:  Art has a role in helping us better engage with surveillance technologies, to better engage with issues of surveillance.  Art has an incredible role to encourage us to reinvent and reshape how we look at ourselves and others, making surveillance a more accessible topic for the general public.

Chang:  It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom.  We can choose to playfully interact with these technologies and realities.  It doesn’t all have to be all about paranoia, which is great.  You can’t avoid all the paranoia, but that kind of choice, to creatively and playfully engage with the topic, is an empowering choice.

Currently, the ACLU contends a bill under congressional consideration, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA, Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, does not require the government to identify surveillance targets and offers no real limits on how the government uses the information it collects.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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