My data is still mine, even if you’ve seen it

The Electronic Frontier Foundation blog posted on Friday that “businesses can challenge warrantless records collection, even if you can’t,” in reference to a recent 9th circuit court decision in Patel v. Los Angeles. You can read their summary and analysis of it here; the gist is that Los Angeles passed an ordinance requiring all hotels to turn over detailed guest information to the police upon request, no warrant required. Patel, a hotelier, sued for violation of 4th amendment rights, and won.

EFF points out that since the decision protects a company’s right to privacy, we should ask corporations – like the telecoms – to go after NSA spy programs in court. They seem to take it as definitive that “people [cannot] reasonably expect that records about their telephone and Internet activity can remain private when those records belong to someone else: the service providers.”

And yes, granted, that’s SCOTUS precedent from Smith v Maryland, which allowed police to obtain phone records (of numbers dialed) without warrants. It’s a B.S. ruling to begin with, but I have particular issues with extending it to apply to the 21st century, as courts are largely doing.

See, today, the “service providers” are our Internet Service Providers, our cell phone companies, our email hosts. We rely on them for basically all of our private correspondence, much of our shopping and banking activity, in addition to all of the new functions (social networking, etc) created in the Internet age and now considered essential by many of us. They own all information that passes through their hands, which is also B.S., and as far as I can tell is only so because the Internet evolved so quickly that there was no one to stop them from establishing that as a basic part of user agreements.

But I digress. My point is, fine, we agreed to hand over our information to the telecoms and ISPs. But that does not mean we relinquish all privacy rights related to that information, which is also my beef with Smith v Maryland. The entire foundation of privacy is that each of us has control over our personal information, and we pick and choose who to share that information with. The idea that once shared with anyone, we give up that control completely, is absurd.

We’re a trusting species. We don’t expect the companies we patronize to expose our information. We believed Google when it said it would never use our information for evil. We trusted Facebook even after it changed its privacy policies a hundred times. We believe that companies and governments won’t use our information in ways any reasonable person (not a term of art here) would expect. We’re naïve.

We certainly did not intend to give up all of our rights by entering into interactions with these companies.

On that note, I was happy to read the following in the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies’ recent report on the NSA surveillance programs:

“In modern society, individuals, for practical reasons, have to use banks, credit cards, email, telephones, the Internet, medical services, and the like. Their decision to reveal otherwise private information to such third parties does not reflect a lack of concern for the privacy of the information, but a necessary accommodation to the realities of modern life. What they want – and reasonably expect – is both the ability to use such services and the right to maintain their privacy when they do so. As a matter of sound public policy in a free society, there is no reason why that should not be possible.”

DUH. THANK YOU. This is not complicated stuff. It’s just the legal mumbo-jumbo and convolutions that have interfered with common sense.

By the way, I really recommend reading that report. It’s fun – and heartening – stuff!

17 days left

There are seventeen days left in the Frick Museum exhibition of Dutch masterpieces from the Mauritshuis. The Hague museum has been undergoing renovations and sent their greatest pieces on exhibit around the world. I strongly recommend stopping by.

The exhibit is like a piece of heaven. It starts with Girl with a Pearl Earring, displayed alone in its own room like the Mona Lisa. I prefer the latter; Mona Lisa seems to hide all the secrets of the universe whereas the Girl’s alluring gaze has less to say. But I don’t deny that she too is spectacular. The contrast of the blue, black and yellow makes them starker – when you see it in person it looks somehow colors reduced to an absolute form. Then of course there’s the light, playing on her face and reflecting from her earrings, lips; shadowing in the folds of her headscarf and on her cheeks.

Sigh. It’s a truly beautiful piece.

You then proceed into the main room, where the remaining pieces are on display. We probably spent a good hour over all viewing the paintings, as it’s very hard to tear yourself away from…well, perfection. My favorite pieces included The Goldfinch – it was my main reason for going, after reading Donna Tartt’s recent novel. Talk about holding the secrets of the universe! That precise, complex painting shows one really Zen bird, and I finally understood why Tartt’s protagonist felt so at peace around his stolen painting.

Then there’s the final painting, Portrait of an Elderly Man, a lively rendering by Rembrandt of a friend of his done in loose, broad brush strokes and depicting a man who, you are sure, is full of life, if jaded.

Definitely go and check it out. Here’s a list of all the paintings. I went on a Sunday morning, as the museum is free to enter from 11am-1pm. There was a line 3 blocks long (!!), but we were inside within thirty minutes, and it was crowded but not unbearable. The Frick also has free admission on Friday evenings.

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Hey look, it’s a book all about my greatest fears!

This was both a can’t-put-it-down book and a throw-it-against-the-wall book for me. But more on that later. First, a quick summary and review:

Mae Holland, a few years out of college, gets a coveted job at The Circle, a Google-Facebook-Twitter hybrid that is quickly taking over the Internet/world. As she says upon arrival at their enormous campus, for Mae, “this is heaven.” Everyone at The Circle is young, brilliant, and trying to save the world with their latest idea. But in order to participate, Mae has to adopt the guiding philosophy of the company: “All that happens must be known.” Over the course of the story, that philosophy develops into three Orwellian dictates: “Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.”

Mae, eager to please and impress her bosses, throws herself into the office culture with abandon. Faced with instant censure and disappointment if she does otherwise, Mae starts attending all the campus parties, tweeting and messaging and “like”ing like a fiend, turning over all her personal data and health information and encouraging her parents to do the same. Under the guidance of the company’s godlike leaders, she is soon sharing her every movement and moment with the entire world. Eventually she will have to decide whether it’s all gone too far, or if she loves Big Circle.

That’s all fascinating, Carolyn, but was it any good? Well, yes. The book is readable, suspenseful, and thought-provoking; the characters are capably drawn; and I can’t argue with the message. You can’t miss the message, either, because Eggers is pretty heavy-handed about the importance of privacy and the danger in all the threats facing it today. Anyone who is bothered by books with overt lessons will definitely be put off. More troublingly, in my opinion, is that Mae is a cypher with not too many thoughts of her own; I appreciate Eggers branching out into a female protagonist but I think he would have done better to stick with a guy in this case, as he’s used to writing them. He might’ve found it easier to give the hero an inner life, and he would’ve avoided the trap he falls into of setting up the love interests as the wise, philosophical saviors of Mae’s soul.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the read, and am thrilled that a popular author is taking on my bailiwick. I would recommend it both to people who haven’t/refuse to think about these issues, and to fellow members of the choir.

Spoilery thoughts

My spoilery reflections on the book follow.

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On vacation

I’m on vacation for the rest of the month. Technically from Dec 18 to Jan 6, though I may shorten it to Jan 2. Yeeaahhh. Either way, it’s a long time! It feels like being a student again.

Yesterday was my first day off, and I wrote most of the day. Being swept off your feet by a story is the best feeling in the world! Today I have put writing off all day because my brain is messed up that way. But yesterday was good. I re-started my mystery novel, and I started in an entirely different place, and it is working much better.

I also found about a zillion great resources for plotting mystery novels. Some things I learned:

  1. The Internet has reached a general consensus that there are 12 or 13 different types of mysteries. Among them, the “cozy” mystery novel – epitomized by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books, these include a murder and events not too closely connected to the protagonist, and a victim who is not well-liked. (AC often wrote that you must look to the victim, find out his faults and secrets, if you want to find the murderer) The others range from the traditional “detective” novel to thrillers and romances.
  2. My story is lacking in almost everything that supposedly makes a novel a “page-turner.” In my defense, so were all the Miss Marple books. :-)
  3. A surprising number of my friends don’t realize how little writers make, even though it’s cliche at this point that writers are broke. Here are a couple of articles on how little bestselling authors have made.

That’s all I got for now. I’m going to go and do some actual writing now.

More from the NY Times on surveillance

The NYTimes Bits blog published a piece yesterday called, “Internet’s Sad Legacy: No More Secrets.” It describes how a lack of privacy is built into every aspect of web use – your ISP has information on everything you do, the NSA and other agencies are actively tracking you, and even programs or apps marketed explicitly on the appeal of “privacy” (e.g. Snapchat or Whisper) keep all of your information and store it indefinitely.

The article ends by quoting Ben Wizner of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project, saying “that tracking technologies have outpaced democratic controls,” and that “technologists are capable of building tools that can prevent such snooping.”

I have to wonder if that’s true, and whether the Internet really does signify the end of privacy. If so, must the end of privacy imply the end of freedom of expression, and of the dignity of being secure in your own person and possessions? Or is there another way?

In either case, what democratic controls would be necessary to protect our rights? They would have to include:

  1. Limits on the government’s ability to access the information gathered by private technology;
  2. Limited rights granted to corporations in how they can use such information (assuming that limiting the kinds of information they can gather is a lost cause);

I don’t know if that’s even possible. Currently, Wizner is right – the internet has advanced far faster than our laws have. Even if we had the know-how to catch up, the incentive to do so is almost non-existent, outside of the civil liberties sphere. Corporations will lobby to be as free as possible in their abilities to gather, track, sort, and sell our information, and governments, who can claim that information for their own uses, don’t need much convincing.

Other dangers

The article also cited Harvey Silverglate, who claims that “the average professional in the United States commits at least three crimes every day,” given the massive quantity of laws that exist but are generally ignored. If, however, you are doing anything that rubs someone in law enforcement the wrong way – say, participating in Occupy Wall Street, or speaking out against the Iraq war – then pervasive surveillance could allow them to use any of these generally minor infractions against you.

Relatedly, here is a fantastic video from the NYTimes that I have been meaning to link to for ages. It summarizes a lot of the basic arguments for the protection of privacy and why we need to limit the government’s intrusions into our personal affairs:

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Review (contains spoilers)

I’ll be honest; I didn’t get this book. My expectations seemed to run parallel to its trajectory – the story never went where I thought it would, and while often that’s a good thing, in this case it was just confounding.

I believe that’s partly because of the way the book opens – on the narrator, Theo Drecker, sitting in an Amsterdam hotel room, pondering his ruin. After this glimpse the book flashes back to his childhood, to the day his mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Met. We follow him from that moment on as he grows, is passed from one guardian to another, and falls into a state of perpetual self-destructiveness. Throughout, he carries with him a painting stolen from the Met during the explosion, Fabritius’ Goldfinch, an illicit treasure that for Theo is a source of both constant anxiety and great solace.

Although the book eventually comes full-circle, bringing us back to Amsterdam, there is no sense of momentum leading us there. The reader, and Theo, just happen to end up there; it doesn’t feel like the culmination of a cohesive narrative. Maybe there isn’t supposed to be. But if this book is, instead, a bildungsroman, there is also very little growth happening, and very little sense of how Theo’s self develops as a result of his experiences.

I will say that the ideas in the book are wonderful, strange and beautiful. Perhaps it is meant to be an intellectual bildungsroman? The book concludes with an extended narration on how Theo thinks about the world, life and death, and how the people in his life helped shape that outlook. Theo, who has very little to live for, ultimately finds meaning in the painting he has stolen, and in beauty as a panacea for the pain of being mortal.

But the story and the characters were a little distant, a little foggy and undefined. In this way it resembles Tartt’s first book, A Secret History, and differs from my favorite work of hers, The Little Friend, in which the characters shine brightly and the story itself is exciting. Her writing is beautiful across all three books – improving with each one – and I do look forward to seeing what she comes up with in the next 10 years. (that’s the usual interval between her books!)

Also, this Sunday I’ll be going to see the Dutch masters exhibit at the Frick, which happens to include…. dun dun dun… The Goldfinch! A very lucky coincidence (Theo would say there’s no such thing); I’ll report back.

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, by Orlando Figes

Summary

I recently read this book by Figes, and found it a thorough and engrossing history of the revolution. He traced its roots back to Alexander III’s reign, through the brutal repressions of Nicholas II, and all the way through to Lenin’s death. Although it took me almost two months to complete (it started to feel like a family member), I always found the book hard to put down. Figes is a superb writer and he tried to address as many of the causes and implications of the revolution as possible.

Aside from minor quibbles, the only complaint I had was that the 800+ page book wasn’t even longer. After finishing I rushed to get his next book, The Whisperers, about life under Stalin – it was equally engrossing.

Thoughts

I have been obsessed with the Russian revolution lately.

Why?

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“Spies’ Dragnet Reaches a Playing Field of Elves and Trolls” – NY Times

There was a pretty amusing NYTimes article today on NSA monitoring of online gaming. Most of it is a laughable display of taxpayer dollars going to waste, but there are a few things that jump out as particularly concerning.

First, a summary: since online gaming worlds like World of Warcraft or Second Life involve anonymous communications, discussions of violent activities, and the ability to transfer money, the NSA flagged it as a potential tool for terrorists to communicate in secret. They sent intelligence agents in to play the games, to spy on the conversations of other players and try to find “informants.”

But then they (and the Pentagon and FBI) took it even further. They began to collect user data and information about other players, including their “chat, instant message, and financial transactions data”. (No word yet on how they gained access to all of this info.) They also commissioned multi-million dollar studies into the potential uses of online gaming worlds for terrorist activities, and gave out major contracts for monitoring these virtual worlds.

The results of all this work have been, well, nonexistent. No terrorist activity has been discovered by these means. The research did turn up plenty of theoretical reasons for continuing to explore online gaming (with the help of the private military contractors, of course), but little in the way of useful information. One sample finding from the article: “[the researchers] found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.” Good work, guys.

Overall, it’s been an appalling use of public funding for a completely unnecessary invasion of privacy. There are three things I want to highlight from the article:

  1. All information contained within these games is owned and monitored by the companies that run them, who must keep an eye out for financial crimes and illegal activity. User information, financial data, message logs, everything. That makes it extremely unlikely that something as serious as a terrorist attack would ever be planned in this venue.
  1. The Pentagon worked with a private gaming company in the Czech Republic to design mobile games with the express purpose of collecting users’ data. This may not be illegal; I don’t know. I do know that such a work-around is both frightening and impractical. What is the point of such a plan? Is there any target audience in mind, and how do they get these games to the targets? Or is the point to gather up information for the sake of gathering information? Is that really something we want our governments doing?
  1. The British agencies working with the US on the game spying did, in fact, uncover illegal activity – they “helped the police in London in cracking down on a crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information.” This is a classic example of the slippery slope of privacy violations; the same thing has happened with CCTV in the UK. Governments use terrorist threats to justify the creation of intrusive surveillance programs, but they end up being useful only for stopping minor crimes. If the police tried to justify these privacy violations by staying they’d help stop financial crimes, no one would have approved – the tradeoff in privacy would not be worth it. But once these systems are in place, they are with us forever, and can be used for anything.
    1. One of the more frightening examples of this in the US are the massive amount of counter-terrorism funds given to local police departments; the equipment it purchases is then used against protesters, low-level drug offenders, and unarmed suspects in their homes.

Catching Fire

Everyone’s talking about it….I hope. The movie deserves it. It’s rare that a book is so faithfully and yet masterfully translated to screen. I thought “Catching Fire” was a nearly perfect movie, and in fact I enjoyed it much more than I ever enjoyed the novel.

I’m now left wishing that Francis Lawrence, the new director, would go back and remake the first movie. I wonder if Gary Ross is feeling lousy, seeing what could have been done with Collins’ material.

As mentioned, I went to see it at the 84th street AMC location. It is…weird. The lazy-boy seats are quite comfortable but you basically have to fully recline in them, or else you’re fully blocking the person behind you. The rows are so spread out that although I booked the 6th row I was very far from the screen (which I didn’t mind too much).

After dinner my friend and I went to our traditional spot, the Hummus Place on Amsterdam and 74th. Best hummus in the city. We lingered past 11pm, their closing time, and they didn’t say a word – very generously warned us the kitchen would be closing but didn’t hurry us out. Best of all I got to take a bunch of hummus home with me. Mmmmm.

PS: Effie’s wardrobe slayed me. They really went all out for this movie. This dress? To die for:

Mystery writing resources

So, I’m currently working on some mysteries. Or, at least, mystery-like short stories. My current project is a series of short stories following a character from age 9 to age 21, and each story is either a mystery or a thriller of some kind. Part of the point is to explore her relationship with her best friend, whose disappearance opens the mystery novel I’m really trying to write. The bigger point is to show how my heroine becomes the badass detective she is in the novel.

Anyway. So here are some resources I discovered today, while thinking about my stories:

I really recommend the mystery elements guide – it’s super basic, but it helped me think about the essential components that need to be worked out before you start writing a mystery – for example, the clues and what scenes they’ll appear in (should every scene have a clue? At least in a short story, my answer is yes). Helpful stuff!