Anonymity in the Age of Panopticon

How would a person remain anonymous and/or protect her privacy in the age of endless tracking, database building and modelling by ever more sophisticated computers?  Currently our search engines and web providers have the ability to develop highly sophisticated models of our activities and interests.  Current commercial interests tend to focus on tailoring ads to reflect content, the trend is towards ever more nuanced information gathering and modelling.

The fact that we see ads directly relevant to our search terms or the content we are accessing is commonplace, on this site and almost everywhere else.  Content and interest oriented advertising is a rapidly growing field.  Imagine if the ads not only reflected your interest, but used models that reflect your attractions that are holding your favourite drink or wearing your style of clothing.  Historically advertising has always had to focus on broad demographics, aiming a particular magazine ad at a few generalizations about the readers.  Now ads and ad generating algorithms can or will create ads specifically targeted at an individual.

Most of us might not like the extreme targeting that might occur with ads, but very few of us would like it if our governments were using the same databases to build personality and relationship profiles to us.  For that matter, not many of us will like the idea of political ads specially tuned to create a specific response, depending on all the information in the database.  (The same party might show a very different variation of the same ad to different people, depending on their search history, news preferences, social network and a thousand other data).

At deeper levels of detail, ads might be varied to reflect our mood depending on how our day or year might be going.  For example, if I were searching for divorce lawyers and single bedroom apartments, a political ad might seek to appeal to my frustration and anger.  If I were looking at cribs and strollers the ad might focus on my optimism.  This tendency to greater nuance and data collection is enough to get any conspiracy theorist into a froth.

All of this is very much the near future, and has been explored in various ways in science fiction.  A panopticon of (mostly profit oriented) surveillance over every nuance and detail of our lives is already becoming normal.  Where science fiction might get interesting is in exploring ways an individual, nefarious or not, might hide in plain sight.  Every system has its weaknesses, and humans are innately keen to exploit weaknesses in systems.  Early system hackers did things like scare buffalo so much they ran off a cliff, rather than merely killing them with weapons and risking injury.  Current system hackers have a much more complex system to engage with, and so are likely to have much more subtle and complex responses.

Some ideas for hiding in plain sight include:

  • Each individual maintaining an automated array of hundreds or thousands of randomized identities, so that each interaction is spoofed as a different identity and no meaningful profile could be created.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t already thought of this and put it into place.
  • Deep encryption of every interaction with the web, perhaps also using multiple identities.  The funny thing about encryption is that using it is a quite rational choice, and yet the mere fact of encryption is seen as evidence of nefarious intent by authorities.
  • Complete detachment from all electronic media.  The survivalist concept, ‘going off the grid’.  All well and good, but hardly forward looking.

There are a lot of juicy SF issues tied to the amazing mixed blessing we call the internet, and it is not at all certain what the end result will be.  I don’t think I can imagine disconnecting from the internet and electronic media now, especially since it is a significant part of my livelihood.  I suppose I’d best set about anonymizing myself.

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Ubiquitous Surveillance and the Profit Motive

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the commodification of our daily activities, especially online activities.  The cycle of ‘Facebook Privacy’ scandals continue, and most of us (myself included) opt to keep letting Facebook and Google build models of our interests, behaviors, social relationships, employment activities and everything else that crosses our minds while we use computers.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Google and Facebook know a lot about us.  They are corporations, and as such seek profit.  Not in itself a bad thing, I own a corporation myself, and have partial ownership of a few others (all small, but the point remains). Where they see opportunity they will pursue it, in fact they are legally obliged to do so.

In the process of setting up an online business elsewhere, I have been wandering around behind the curtain of this customer tracking and targeting data system, specifically Google’s ad and marketing infrastructure.  As a businessperson and writer I am impressed at the ability to target ad campaigns at specific neighborhoods, demographics, interests and goals.  I am also in awe of the ability Google has to track a customer from clicking on an ad through purchasing, and give sellers feedback about what is working.

All well and good, in some respects.  A business is most efficient when it isn’t wasting money advertising to people who are not interested in their products.  Businesses that were too micro-niche to survive a few years ago can now thrive.  Prices are lower, everyone wins.  Business models are possible now that were beyond imagination even 20 years ago, and innovation is proceeding furiously along (outside of Wall Street, which is not a place for innovation so much as creative system hacking).

However, privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders are very understandably concerned.  If a corporation knows that I like science fiction, I don’t suppose it matters much unless they are trying to sell me science fiction novels (not a tough sell).  If a government knows my tastes, that might concern me more – if a book I like is contraband, or a perceived indication of criminal intent.

Where my concerns escalate is when my data is refined into models that effect the availability of certain services.  If I lived in the U.S. I would be very concerned about my occasional curiosity about extreme sports or greasy food might have an impact on my insurance rates and eligibility.  Perhaps some of my cousins or friends have criminal tendencies (I have a great many cousins, so while I know of nothing untoward probability suggests somebody is up to something illegal), and their socially networked connections to me might degrade my eligibility for loans or travel.  Being a relative of a ‘bad person’ is certainly enough to put you in serious jeopardy in other parts of the world.

A further degree of alarm arises with concepts like privatized prison and parole corporations using ubiquitous surveillance to manage their bottom line.  The two best ways to improve profits are to increase sales or decrease costs.  Any SF aware reader can imagine how those motivations might cause trouble with a profit-oriented prison system.  If a prisoner is profitable, the goal might be to get more prisoners – not exactly what a healthy society might see as a good goal.

Matt Stoller writes a very good article over at Naked Capitalism about the growing privacy and moral hazards of our budding ubiquitous surveillance society.

The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers. This is particularly true for auto insurance companies, some of whom like Allstate and Progressive are experimenting on new technologies. For instance, IBM suggests that “A “pay-as-you-live” product would trade some location and time-of-day privacy data for lower insurance bills overall.”


Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear, and those of us with relatively legal and healthy habits would probably save money.  But even with ubiquitous surveillance, the data can be wrong and people unfairly labelled.  Science fiction is full of thoughtful explorations of this concept, from Minority Report to Brazil to Accelerando.  The moral hazard for a corporation faced with an opportunity to increase profits by invading privacy is significant.  Most of us would probably volunteer for the lower rates in exchange for surveillance, and those of us who might resist will find ourselves on the margins.

This all sounds like the seeds of a very good SF novel.

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Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is a near future apocalyptic story written in the form of transcripts and summaries of a variety of key events in a “War with the Robots”.  The concept of an advanced AI choosing to rebel and turning our machines against us is not new (see The Terminator), but the story was exciting and enjoyable to read.

There are a great many similarities in structure and execution to another bestselling apocalyptic SF novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I reviewed here.  Both novels take the form of after-the-fact descriptions of events as related (mostly) by survivors.  Both follow a similar story arc, taking us through the initial chaos and panic through the humans regrouping, finding ways to survive, and ultimately triumphing over their adversaries.

Robopocalypse is a darkly depressing novel, portraying our current technological trend toward wholly integrated computing and ubiquitous technology as a massive risk.  Genuinely sentient AI seems possible (if unlikely)even now, and like any sentient being it would be almost impossible to completely predict its actions and choices.

The main character and primary narrator of the book, a Sgt. Cormac Macarthy, relates his own experiences as well as those of a few key other individuals.  His insights into events outside his own experiences are provided by a robot record of the war, which the AI had made a point of preserving.  Most of the stories are compelling, though the story does stretch credibility in some events, as might be expected in an apocalyptic SF novel.

Robopocalypse is currently a strong seller, which is not surprising given the current trend towards apocalypse in fiction and the public zeitgeist.  This book is definitely worth a read, and I encourage anyone with an interest in current SF to try it out.  That said, the novel does not break any new ground, and does not explore new ideas in the manner of the SF greats.

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Surveillance System Scans 36 Million Faces/Second

I can think of lots of reasons not to like this technology. I can also think of plenty of reasons it will come to pass.

So from an SF point of view, what does the almost inevitable creation of ubiquitous, alert surveillance mean for society?  Currently we see the practice of dissent happening in a ‘hiding in plain sight’ use of social media (Facebook, Twitter etc.)  Part of the ability to organize this way lies in the sheer volume of media, which limits a potential oppressor’s ability to parse the data stream.  That is largely a function of processing power and software, both of which are getting better all the time.

So what will it mean when vast data engines parse everything we do, write or say for more than just advertising?  So far much of the ubiquitous surveillance happens online, and what we do ‘in reality’ is still somewhat private.  Technology like the above suggests that will change, and soon.

via ITworld and Geekosystem.

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True Skin Trailer: Cybernetic Bangkok

TRUE SKIN TEASER from H1 on Vimeo.

The imagery in this trailer is very reminiscent of Blade Runner. There is no way to discern what the story will be about from the trailer, but I love the overlap of cybernetics and robotics with the poverty and grit of Bangkok.  The trailer alone makes a fantastic impression just as a short film.

The producers have promised a full (12 minute) feature this summer at their site on Vimeo.  My understanding is that they are hoping to parlay that into a full length feature movie production.  If it is as cool as this trailer, I wish them luck.

via Giant Freaking Robot

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The Milkman`s Robot

Paleofuture has a brief article discussing the disappearance of the milkman, in contrast to how our predecessors anticipated the job of the milkman changing. As always, I find historical predictions about the future both charming and alarming.  For many years, we saw the existence of milkmen as permanent and unchangeable – how else would we get fresh milk, after all?

The milkman’s robot helper of the future as imagined by illustrator Arthur Radebaugh (1961)

I suppose the rate of change has increased to the point that we are more capable of assuming the future will be unpredictably strange, even in the near future.  Yet we still sign 25 year mortgages, save up for retirements that we assume will occur as far in the future as this milkman is past.  This despite the simple fact that any adult over 35 (including myself) grew before the internet existed in any significant sense.  Whatever assumptions I had about the future did not include the internet, cell phones or GPS or anything that has cascaded from those developments.

I’m sure not one single futurist of any stripe predicted the antics of Anonymous or anything like the Arab Spring.  Instead, most of us look at the world around us and make a big assumption that despite accelerating change most of our lives will not change in any significant way.  The now-comical concept of a robotic helper following a milkman on his daily rounds effectively kills that assumption dead.

Unless we imagine that the milkman is being given `busy work` as a suicide prevention policy in a world where robots and AI  do everything of importance.  Instead of letting us wallow in ennui, our AI overlords might create `work` programs to keep us busy.

It wouldn`t take much modelling or testing to formulate an optimal level of work and challenge for a particular individual.  A truly clever AI would be able to come up with ways to convince us that our work is actually important and necessary.  We will all spin on our obsolescent hamster wheels, while the AI gets on with the business of the grown-ups.

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RUIN: Short Action Film in an Apocalyptic Ruin

This short film doesn’t spend much time giving us context or story, but it sure is thrilling.  The beginning of the film hints at a back-story, enough to trigger my trope-o-meter and fill in the ‘corporate research run amok’ storyline.  All that is fine, but just enjoy the ride.

It was created by someone named wesball, and the youtube link is here.

via io9.

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SF Trilogy Roundup: China Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy

One of the joys of being a reader is discovering authors or books that have been around awhile yet are new to you. When this happens it is like discovering a whole new shelf of books that you want to read, without having to wait for the author to produce something new. We at Rocket Pajamas are, in point of fact, small-time and not on the lists of any publishers for advance reviews of new books. And so, here begins our first of many book reviews of long-completed novels and other works. With luck, you will discover new authors and books. At the least, you will be able to revisit some cherished reads.

Science Fiction and Fantasy produce quite a few trilogies, a happy fact that allows stories and worlds to achieve a depth and richness that is much more difficult in a stand alone novel.  Some trilogies follow a linear path, merely telling a very long story divided into three discrete books, while others present widely disparate stories that connect to a central theme or realized world.

Of course there exist SF series that extend far beyond a mere trilogy, but in my opinion the books tend to become formulaic and repetitive.  Few ideas are so fantastic or exciting as to stay fresh through five or ten full-length novels.  The classic example of this problem is found in the seemingly endless Dune novels.  While I have certainly worked my way through the occasional extended series, I am usually losing interest long before the end.

In this first installment of what will be a series of discussions of SF trilogies, I will talk about China Miéville’s brutal, breathtaking and dark Bas-Lag Series.  This is one of those speculative fiction works that straddles the indefinable line between science fiction and fantasy, presenting a Victorian-era industrialized world in which magic is a science in itself.  Given that much of our current technology would be seen as pure magic by a 19th century scientist, one is left wondering how much of the magic in the novels is in fact technology warped to fit the culture and norms of the society of Bas-Lag.

Perdido Street Station is the first novel, which introduces us to Bas-Lag and it’s grimy, dark and turbulent city of New Crobuzon.  This is a brilliant novel that hits you like a kick in the teeth, full of class conflict, urban tension, twisted science and alchemical intrigue.  It is impossible to get the city out of your head once you have read it.

The class tension and paranoia is palpable in every page of the novel.  The streets are seedy, dangerous, diverse and rife with tension.  The main characters find themselves hunted by the secret police while themselves trying to destroy a monstrous group of moths that feed on the dreams of sentients.

The novel asks far more questions than it answers and serves as an intoxicating introduction to the world of Bas-Lag.  It is hard not to appreciate the mind that presents us the horrors of the ReMade, people who have been mutilated into steampunk cyborgs as punishment for crimes minor and major.  It is also easy to see New Crobuzon as a distorted reflection of our own world’s class and racial tensions.  Truly a brilliant novel.

The Scar

The Scar was my first Miéville novel, and I had no idea what I was in for when I began.  Any avid reader can appreciate the happy feeling when you read a book that you really enjoy, then discover that the writer has a decent back catalogue for you to explore while you wait for a new novel.  This was my experience with The Scar.  The protagonist is only incidentally related to the characters in Perdido Street Station, but such is the repression in the aftermath of the first novel that she must flee the city and ends up captured by a floating pirate city. Brilliant, thrilling and full of wholly unexpected twists in the story.

Iron Council is a dark and angry class battle with parallel stories between a near mythical rebel train construction gang whose uprising inspires class tensions in New Crobuzon, and an open class war in the city. The steampunkish theme gives the conflict and tension a gritty, urgent feel where one can’t help but root for the rebels.

China Miéville has written a number of other excellent books, notably The City & The City, but the Bas Lag trilogy was my introduction and I recommend it highly to anyone who has never had the pleasure of his writing.


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Gamma: Creepy SF short film

Kudos to io9 for finding the very cool and very creepy SF short film Gamma, filmed in the ruins of Chernobyl.

I particularly like the narrative style, using a survivor interview without being too cute about it.  SF is always best when it is up to the audience to fill in the backstory.

GAMMA from Factory Fifteen on Vimeo.

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