Tag Archives: politics

Some good articles on surveillance

There are a number of very good articles floating around as the NSA debacle begins to sink in. Two in particular come to mind, the first is a great long read, the second and third are just about the range of implications that will emerge over time of living in a surveillance state that continues to have many functioning democratic institutions:

The Ecuadorian Library

Lawyers eye NSA data as treasure trove for evidence in murder, divorce cases

It’s time Google came to grips with how it enables the surveillance state

Again, as outraged as Americans may be, we non-american have already had to come to grips with the fact that a drone strike can be called against us any time, any where, with no judicial oversight. And now we are coming to grips with the fact that the US government is monitoring everything we do online and building the capacity to store it, indefinitely.

I don’t think America has really grasped how far it has fallen from the “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” This isn’t to say any one thinks that other players are better, but America sold the world not on a relative debate (hey, we’re better than the Russians) but on the promise of an ideal.

More on all of this on Tuesday but wanted to share the reads.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Open Data

I have an article titles Lies, Damn Lies and Open Data in Slate Magazine as part of their Future Tense series.

Here, for me, is the core point:

On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

The long form census debacle here in Canada was, I think, a great example of data getting politicized, and was really helped clarify my thinking around this. This piece has been germinating since then, but the core thesis has occasionally leaked out during some of my talks and discussion. Indeed, you can see me share some of it during the tail end of my opening keynote at the Open Knowledge Foundation International Open Data Camp almost three years ago.

Anyways, please hop on over to Slate and take a look – I hope you enjoy the read.

I Stand for My Rights & Privacy: The Coming Online Police State

“He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers.”

This was Mr. Toews’s, the Minister of Justice, counterattack to a question in the house regarding concerns of letting the police monitor citizens internet use without a warrant.

Apparently this is our choice: a big brother state or child pornography.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Not to mention frightening. But this is the world Canadians will be entering in a few short weeks once the new Conservative Crime bill passes. The provisions that require a warrant, are interesting: the bill forces internet service providers to record and make available, to both police and governments, their customers internet activity such as the websites they visit. Citizen, understand, this now means that Bell, Rogers or anyone else that provides you with internet on your phone or at your home will now be recording every website you visit. Disturbed about that invasion of privacy? It gets worse.

Most disconcerting is that police would be allowed to obtain your email address, your IP addresses (which often identifies you on the Internet – your home, for example, likely has an IP address), or your mobile phone number and other information without a warrant. They just have to demand it. Suddenly a lot of what you can do online can be monitored by the police – again, without a warrant.

It isn’t just opposition members who are concerned. The Federal Privacy Commissioner and provincial counterparts are deeply concerned. They understand what this means. As Jennifer Stoddart, the federal Privacy Commissioner wrote to Minister Toews:

I am also concerned about the adoption of lower thresholds for obtaining personal information from commercial enterprises.  The new powers envisaged are not limited to specific, serious offences or urgent or exceptional situations.  In the case of access to subscriber data, there is not even a requirement for the commission of a crime to justify access to personal information – real names, home address, unlisted numbers, email addresses, IP addresses and much more – without a warrant.

In a few short weeks, this will be our reality: we will live in a country where the government can gain access to information that enables them to monitor its citizens online without a warrant. Obviously, the opportunities for abuse are astounding. If you are a radical element non-profit advocacy group that disagrees with the government, you’re probably doubly concerned. Of course, if you are an regular citizen I hope you haven’t written any anonymous comments in opposition to the Gateway Pipelines, since this legislation, combined with the government’s new focus on eco-terrorists (they are as much a threat as neo-nazi groups apparently) could make you a “vulnerable individual” and so an obvious target for security forces.

Of course the real irony of all this is that while the government seeks to increase its powers to monitor Canadians online it has used the opposite argument – the fear of government intrusion into citizens lives – to end the long gun registry. Not 6 days ago, Conservative Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound) expressed his concern about how the gun registry would help foster a police state:

[…] Before I discuss the bill I would like to review how we arrived at where we are today. I would like to share with the House a quote from former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock: “I came to Ottawa last year, with a firm belief that the only people in Canada who should have firearms are police officers and the military.”

Does that sound familiar? Adolf Hitler, 1939.

You know what really reminds me of Adolf Hitler, 1939? A government that seeks to monitor the actions of all its citizens. That ask companies to record their activities in their homes and their places of work and that gives the police the right to access their personal information without a warrant. As a father I agree we need to fight child pornography, but I’m not willing to sign away my – or my children’s – civil rights and online privacy. I  suspect most Canadians, as they learn more about this bill, will feel the same way. They don’t want any government, Conservative, Liberal or NDP, recording what they do, or accessing information about them without a warrant from an independent judiciary.

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

Not Brain Candy: A Review of The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

My body no longer kills me when I come back from the gym. However, I had a moment of total humiliation today: theoretically my ideal body weight is 172 pounds and I weigh 153 Ibs. The woman at the gym calibrated my fat/water/meat/bone ratios, made an inward gasp and I asked her what was wrong. She said (after a tentative, you-have-cancer pause), “You’re what’s technically known as a ‘thin fat person.’ ”

– Douglas Copeland, Microserfs

We know that healthy eating – having a good, balanced diet – is the most important thing we can do for our physical health. What if the same is true of our brains?  This is the simple but powerful premise that lies at the heart of Clay Johnson’s excellent book The Information Diet.

It’s also a timely thesis.

Everyone seems worried about how we consume information, about what it is doing to our brains and how it impacts society. Pessimists believe Google and social media are creating a generation of distracted idiots unable or unwilling to steep themselves in any deep knowledge. From the snide ramblings of Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur to alarmed New York Times executive editor Bill Keller – who equates letting his daughter join Facebook to passing her a crystal meth pipe – the internet and the type of information it creates are apparently destroying our minds, our society and, of course, our children.

While I disagree with the likes of Keen and Keller, your humble author admits he’s an information addict. I love reading the newspaper or my favourite columnists/bloggers; I’m regularly distracted by both interesting and meaningless articles via Twitter and Facebook; and I constantly struggle to stay on top of my email inbox. I’m a knowledge worker in an information society. If anyone should be good at managing information, it should be me. Reading The Information Diet forces me to engage with my ability in a way I’ve not done before.

What makes The Information Diet compelling is that Johnson embraces the concerns we have about the world of information overload – from those raised by New York Magazine authors and celebrated pundits to the challenges we all feel on a day to day basis – and offers the best analysis to date of its causes, and what we can do about it. Indeed, rather than being a single book, The Information Diet is really three. It’s an analysis of what is happening to the media world; it’s a self-help book for information-age workers, consumers and citizens; and it’s a discussion about the implications of the media environment on our politics.

InfoDietIt is in its first section that the book shines the brightest. Johnson is utterly persuasive in arguing that the forces at play in the food industry are a powerful mirror for our media environment. Today the main threat to Americans (and most others living in the developed world) is not starvation; it’s obesity. Our factory farms are so completely effective at pumping out produce that it isn’t a lack of food the kills us, it’s an overabundance of it. And more specifically, it’s the over-consumption of food that we choose to eat, but that isn’t good for us in anything greater than small quantities.

With information, our problem isn’t that we consume too much – Johnson correctly points out that physically, this isn’t possible. What’s dangerous is consuming an overabundance of junk information – information that is bad for us. Today, one can choose to live strictly on a diet of ramen noodles and Mars bars. Similarly, it’s never been easier to restrict one’s information consumption to that which confirms our biases. In an effort to better serve us, everywhere we go, we can chomp on a steady diet of information that affirms and comforts rather than challenges – information devoid of knowledge or even accuracy; cheaply developed stories by “big info” content farms like Demand Media or cheaply created opinion hawked by affirmation factories like MSNBC or FOX News; even emails and tweets that provide dopamine bursts but little value. In small quantities, these information sources can be good and even enjoyable. In large quantities, they deplete our efficiency, stress us out, and can put us in reality bubbles.

And this is why I found The Information Diet simultaneously challenging, helpful and worrying.

Challenging, because reading The Information Diet caused me to think of my own diet. I like to believe I’m a healthy consumer, but reflecting on what I read, where I get my information and who I engage with, in parts of my life, I may be that dreaded thin-fat person. I look okay, but probe a little deeper and frankly, there are a few too many confirmation biases, too many common sources, leaving my brain insufficiently challenged and becoming a shade flabby. I certainly spend too much time on email, which frankly is a type of information fix that really does sap my productivity.

Helpful, because in part The Information Diet is a 21st-century guide to developing and honing critical thinking and reasoning skills. At its most basic, it’s a self-help book that provides some solid frameworks and tools for keeping these skills sharp in a world where the opportunities for distraction and confirmation bias remain real and the noise-to-signal ratio can be hard to navigate.  To be clear, none of this advice is overly refined, but Johnson doesn’t pretend it is. You can’t download critical thinking skills – no matter what Fox News’s slogan implies. In this regard, the book is more than helpful – it’s empowering. Johnson, correctly I believe, argues that much like the fast food industry – which seeks to exploit our body’s love of salty, fatty food – many media companies are simply indulging our desire for affirming news and opinion. It’s not large companies that are to blame. It’s the “secret compact” (as Johnson calls it) that we make with them that makes them possible. We are what we consume. In this regard, for someone that those on the right might consider (wrongly) to be a big government liberal, The Information Diet has an strong emphasis on personal responsibility.

There is, of course, a depressing flip side to this point: one that has me thinking about the broader implications of his metaphor. In a world of abundant food, we have to develop better discipline around dieting and consumption.

But the sad fact is, many of us haven’t. Indeed, almost a majority has not.

As someone who believes in democratic discourse, I’ve always accepted that as messy as our democratic systems may be, over time good ideas – those backed by evidence and effective track records – will rise to the top. I don’t think Johnson is suggesting this is no longer true. But he is implying that in a world of abundant information, the basic ante of effective participation is going up. The skills are evolving and the discipline required is increasing. If true, where does that leave us? Are we up for the challenge? Even many of those who look informed may simply be thin fat people. Perhaps those young enough to grow up in the new media environment will automatically develop the skills Clay says we need to explicitly foster. But does this mean there is a vulnerable generation? One unable to engage critically and so particularly susceptible to the siren song of their biases?

Indeed, I wish this topic were tackled more, and initially it felt like it would be. The book starts off as a powerful polemic on how we engage in information; it is then a self-help book, and towards the end, an analysis of American politics. It all makes for fascinating reading. Clay has plenty of humour, southern charm and self-deprecating stories that the pages flow smoothly past one another. Moreover, his experience serves him well. This is man who worked at Ask Jeeves in its early days, helped create the online phenomenon of the Howard Dean campaign, and co-founded Blue State Digital – which then went on to create the software that powered Obama’s online campaign.

But while his background and personality make for compelling reading, the last section sometimes feels more disconnected from the overall thesis. There is much that is interesting and I think Clay’s concerns about the limits of transparency are sound (it is a prerequisite to success, but not a solution). Much like most people know Oreos are bad for them, they know congressmen accept huge bundles of money. Food labels haven’t made America thinner, and getting better stats on this isn’t going to magically alter Washington. Labels and transparency are important tools for those seeking to diet. Here the conversation is valuable. However, some of the arguments, such as around scalability problems of representation, feel less about information and more about why politics doesn’t work. And the chapter closes with more individual advice. This is interesting, but his first three chapters create a sense of crisis around America’s information diet. I loved his suggestions for individuals, but I’d love to hear some more structural solutions, or if he thinks the crisis is going to get worse, and how it might affect our future.

None of this detracts from the book. Quite the opposite – it left me hungry for more.

And I suspect it will do the same for anyone interested in participating as a citizen or worker in the knowledge economy. Making The Information Diet part of your information diet won’t just help you rethink how you consume information, live and work. It will make you think. As a guy who knows he should eat more broccoli but doesn’t really like the taste, it’s nice to know that broccoli for your brain can be both good for you and tasty to read. I wish I had more of it in my daily diet.

For those interested you can find The Information Diet Blog here – this has replaced his older well known blog – InfoVegan.com.

Full disclosure: I should also share that I know Clay Johnson. I’ve been involved in Code for America and he sits on the Advisory Board. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to look at his book with a critical eye, but you the reader, should be aware.

Depression and Decline: American Irresponsibility is Ending the American Era with a Bang

Despite the assurances of US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner it is increasingly likely there will be no debt deal. The United States is going to default on its debt. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe it is going to happen. If it does, this is the black swan event no one imagined or was prepared to contemplate. Its impacts are going to be significant. Possibly immeasurable.

For history, August 2nd, 2011 could end up marking the end of the American Era. Sadly, it will not have been inevitable, it will have been entirely self-inflicted and it may now be irreversible. Even if an agreement is reached tomorrow I suspect the world will increasingly be unwilling to entrust the role of global financial system caretaker to the United States. The world has lost faith in America. And why not. Its Congress has demonstrated that it can no longer be trusted with the responsibility of global financial management. Indeed, even its closest allies have had their confidence shaken.

The economic and geopolitical ramifications of this outcome cannot be underestimated.

Economically, we may now be closer to a global depression than at anytime since 1930s. For all the talk of the financial crises being a near miss, this could potentially be much, much worse, simply because the consequences fall outside our predictive models.

What is clear is that America is trapped. In the short term spending less will devastate its population. Today more Americans (18.1%) than ever use food stamps. It takes American workers 40 weeks (and rising) to find a job, twice as long than in any previous recession. 1 in every 6 Americans use Medicaid. Any cuts to these services will have an immediate and harsh affect on the quality of life of a huge number of Americans.

Longer term, America cannot restart its economy. Already the top 5% of Americans by income account for 37% of all consumer outlays. This is unsurprising given the top 5% of Americans account for 34.7% of all income. This is similar to 1929 when the top 5% accounted for the top third of all personal income. This is precisely the type of economic structure that Kenneth Galbraith argues in The Great Crash, 1929, transformed the great crash into the great depression. Rather than being able to rely on a broad consumer base to power economic growth, the United States then (as now) was dependent on a high level of investment and luxury consumer spending driven by a small elite. The crash caused that elite to seize up, leaving the American economy paralyzed.

In other words, the Bush Tax cuts may have killed the US economically, and possibly geopolitical. By killing the surpluses they have broken the US treasury. By radically curtailing wealth redistribution they have fatally eroded the capacity of the US domestic economy to power new growth. Combine this with two wars that have sapped trillions of taxpayer dollars, and it is hard not to see a United States more ill prepared than at any time in its history to deal with an economic crisis. The only question that may remain is how much of the rest of the world it drags down with it.

Of course economic decline could become a leading indicator for political decline.

When I arrived to grad school in 1998 to study international relations the field had spent much of the previous decade grappling with the issue of American decline. Books like The Rise and Fall of Great Powers and Lester Thurow’s Head to Head seemed to suggest that economically and militarily, the United States was in, at the very least, relative decline as a the world’s leading power.

But then the successes of the US economy – coupled with the turn around in the size of the US government’s debt –  meant that as a peer, China felt a long way off while Brazil and India seemed more distant still. Europe was too old, disorganized and unambitious to matter. Russia, was fading quickly from the scene. Suddenly decline theory was, itself in decline.

But today the writings of Kennedy feel even more urgent. America, with or without a raised debt ceiling, cannot afford its empire, or the means to protect it. It may be able to find allies to help shoulder the burden – today the central challenge of 21st century geopolitics is the integration of India into the Western Alliance, something that proceeds apace. But if it defaults (and maybe even if it does not) it’s capacity to raise money at a reasonable rate should a major conflict arise, may be compromised. War, for America, is going to get more expensive because investors may be more nervous.

I want to clearly state that I don’t write any of this with any glee. Leftish non-americans who relish a world without the US hegemony should look at the what the period after Britain’s decline, or any period of hegemonic decline. They generally aren’t pretty. Indeed, they are often unstable, violent and nasty. Not something any country should wish for, especially smaller countries (such as my own – Canada). Moreover, while there is no immediate peer that could take America’s place, it isn’t clear that the most likely candidate – China – is one that most people would feel more comfortable with. Be careful what you wish for.

I hope that I’m wrong. I hope a deal will be reached. And that if it is, or if it isn’t, the impact on the markets will be minimal or non-existent. Or maybe, I just need to have more confidence in what I have often tell others: do not to underestimate America. As Sir Winston Churchill famously noted: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” And maybe they’ll have enough time to boot.

But I genuinely fear that in the haze of summer this crisis, as much as it has spurred some scary headlines, remains a sleeper. That we are confronting the mother of all black swans, and that a period of financial turmoil that will make the last two years look like a merry ride, could be upon us. Worse, that that financial turmoil will lead to other, great military and/or political turmoil.

These are scary times.

I can honestly say I never written a blog post that I hope I’m more wrong about.

Update: The Atlantic has a great article worth reading about the origins of the deficit published later this morning that includes a reference this fantastic graph from a few months ago.

CIDA announces Open Data portal: What it means to Canadians

For those who missed it, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has announced it is launching an open data portal.

This is exciting news. On Monday I was interviewed about the initiative by Embassy Magazine which published the resulting article (behind their paywall) here.

As (I hope) the interview conveys, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Minister’s announcement. I’m conservative in my reaction only because we don’t actually know what the Minister has announced. At the moment the CIDA open data page is, quite literally, a blank slate. I feel positive because pretty much anything that gets more information about Canada’s aid budget available online is a step in the right direction. I’m cautious however, because the text from the Minister’s speech leads me to believe that she is using the term “open data” to describe something that may, in fact, not be open data.

Donors and partner countries must be accountable to their citizens, absolutely, but both must also be accountable to each other.

Transparency underpins these accountabilities.

With this in mind, today I am pleased to announce the Open Data Portal on the CIDA website that will make our searchable database of roughly 3,000 projects quick and simple to access.

The Open Data portal will put our country strategies, evaluations, audits and annual statistical and results reports within easy reach.

One of the core elements of the definition of “open data” is that it be machine readable. I need to actually get the “data” (e.g an excel spreadsheet, or database I can download and/or access) so that I can play with it, mash it up, analyze it, etc… It isn’t clear that this is on offer. The minister’s announcements talks about a database that allows you to search, and quickly download, reports on the 3000 projects that CIDA funds or operates. A report however, is not data. It may cite data, it may (and hopefully does) even contain data in charts or tables, but if what we are getting is access to reports then this is not an open data portal.

What I hope is happening – and what I advocated for in an oped in the Toronto Star – is that the Minister is launching a true open data portal which will share actual data – not analysis – with Canadians. More importantly, I hope this means Canada will be joining the efforts of Publish What you Fund, as it pushes donor organizations to share their aid data in a single common structure, so that budgets, contributions, projects, timelines, geography and other information about aid can be compared across countries, agencies, and organizations.

Open data, and especially in a internationally recognized standardized format, matters because no one is going to read all 10,000 reports about all 3000 projects CIDA funds. However, if we had access to the data, in a structured manner, there are those at non-profits, in universities and colleges and in the media (among other places) that could map the projects, compare budgets and results more clearly, compare our efforts against those of other countries, and do their own analysis to say, find duplication and overlap. I don’t, for a second, believe that 99.9% of Canadians will use CIDA’s open data portal, but the .1% who do will be able to create products that can inform the rest of us, and allow us to better understand Canada’s role in the world. In other words, Open Data portal could be empowering and educating to a broad number of people. Access to 10,000 reports, while a good step, simply won’t be able to create a similar outcome on any scale. The difference is, quite frankly, dramatic.

So let’s wait and see. I’m excited that the Minister of International Cooperation is using the language of Open Data – it means that she and her staff understand it has currency. What I also hope is that they understand its meaning – so far we have no data on whether they do or do not, and I remain cautiously optimistic, they should, after all, realize the significance of the language they are using. Either way, they have set high expectations among those of us who think about, talk about and work in, this area. As a Canadian, I’m hoping those expectations get fulfilled.