Random reactions from CFP

You knew this was coming…

My fear, noted in my previous rant, has been realized. In short, the choir was in attendance at the 2004 Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference and was summarily preached at. Not even Slashdot, stalwart of (libertarian?) technology news, had a story on CFP. I suppose conferences are not the proper venue to invite the general public to learn more about these issues.

A friend of mine would quickly add that the troops need time to discuss strategy among themselves, to be made aware of the goings-on in their individual camps. While I agree, this raises the question of when should the focus change from rallying the troops to stirring passion on the home front.

The realization that my fears had come true occurred as I was having a conversation with a non-technical non-lawyer after the conference proceedings. He noted the lack of a primer for people interested in these issues such as himself; even if you’re interested in the issues, most of the conference will go over your head if you don’t understand the vocabulary we use or if you’re not aware of the current events or if you don’t know the laws and policies involved.

So several of us will take it upon ourselves to find a solution to this problem. This gets back to that previous rant, namely coming up with ways to get other people to care. Education is a necessary part of that. The lack of pedagogy is alarming to me, and (of course) I defer voicing my opinion on pedagogy until some future rant.

But here are the major themes as I saw them that were presented at the conference as well as questions I was left with, including extra cynicism (cynicism you’ve all grown to love and cherish by now I hope…).

  • The lack of coordination between law, policy, and technological efforts

    I think someone at every session suggested or outright said that we need more interaction between the different camps (lawyers, policy makers, technologists, industry, etc) to reach better solutions. But wasn’t this the point of CFP in the first place — to foster exactly this communication? If so, then why is this communication not happening? My guess is that we’re too busy in our own little worlds to find time to do this large scale coordination… Maybe they’ll fix this by the next CFP (yeah, right).

  • “National security” as the new Catch-22

    Any time that something seemed questionable, like collecting databases with info about you and using them together to determine if you’re exhibiting terrorist behavior, the “national security” exception was invoked. You can’t question this without being unpatriotic, and no patriotic person would question the need for greater national security, right? “National security” is also like that newsgroup law about Hitler — as soon as you mention Hitler, the conversation is over because there’s nothing you can say to come back against Hitler (just like from Office Space — “You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear”). Once someone cites “national security” as the justification for action, all other arguments lose merit.

  • Lack of research funding, interest in pursuing such research, and research in the wrong areas

    Doug Tygar, U.C. Berkeley professor, hit the nail on the head with this one. Nearly all of the problems presented at CFP would benefit from deeper research. Not only do we need to find money and people to pursue these topics, that also implies we should trim other less fruitful but related areas of research (trusted computing comes to mind).

  • “Clarifying” versus “disagree”

    The conference was remarkably civil, despite the very brave representatives from Microsoft, DirecTV, the Bush Administration (the Department of Justice), and more willing to play in the lions’ den. Rarely the civility broke down and people got a little angry. But the essence of this comes down to one word: “clarify.” If I disagree with you, I start a comment with “I want you to clarify…” rather than “I don’t agree…” because I assume some people have to try really hard not to start a Jerry Springer-like moment while on a conference panel, no matter how funny such an event would be.

  • Definitions

    For a conference called “Computers, Freedom, and Privacy,” I only know what computers are. Freedom and privacy are too broad and relative to discuss without having definitions for them. This is especially important as those definitions change in different contexts — privacy in email is much different than privacy in web surfing habits. I’ve got a rant around here somewhere that deals with the definition of freedom — I’ll get around to it some other time…

  • Unsophisticated users, sophisticated systems and laws

    Users are stupid. Technologies are too complicated and arrive too rapidly for individuals to learn to use them successfully with respect to laws and privacy and the like. Also, most users don’t understand laws, licenses, copyrights, and legal issues surrounding these technologies. Are we somehow responsible for teaching people these issues? Or should we aim for the lowest common denominator and dumb down technologies and laws? I am truly dumbfounded for how to solve this, but get me a bottle of whiskey and a computer and I’ll gladly provide words on the subject… or just wait a few more weeks until I formulate a legitimate opinion and put it up here.

  • The Internet and computers have a long and deep memory

    Exemplified by Gmail (1 GB of email storage) and the Internet Archive (storing the web since 1997), people don’t realize that pretty much everything that we do on the Internet or computer networks is stored somewhere. Even if this is mostly limited to the web now, it will very quickly expand (if not there already) to email, instant messaging, voice-over-IP (Internet telephony), and all other present and future net communications, and even things we don’t usually associate with computers like your purchasing records, travel plans, health information, financial statements, and so on. The scariest example of how information like this can be used against you at the conference was how your credit information can be used to deny you insurance or even jack up your rates if your credit history makes you seem like an at-risk individual or how that credit info can be used to discriminate against groups. Even though nobody explicitly stated the problem as I did here, this is the sleeper issue that worries me most from the conference. Information can be used against us just as it can be used to help, but what if information is permanent and can be collected from disparate sources? Think if Orkut and Gmail shared information and fear Google. I think I’ll revisit the information permanence problem later…

  • Can or should digital technologies reflect analog systems?

    This is the big question I left with after the conference. Many of the presentations implied that while we want the benefit of digital systems, we also want all the capabilities of physical world systems. For example, electronic voting systems should have some human verifiable or auditing method for performing recounts just like recounting paper ballots. Can we really have it both ways in every case? If we can do it, that doesn’t mean we must do it…

  • The philosophers, social scientists, economists, average joes, etc…

    Much of the conference focused on three things: law, policy, and technology. This ignored many important other parts like social repercussions of technology, law, and policy change, economic aspects that affect the development of such things or measurable results of changes, philosophies that underlie our beliefs, or even the beliefs of everyday people (not in attendance at the conference). Many important opinions and points of view were missing from the conference as a result. Hopefully future CFPs will take this into account when inviting panel participants. On a similar note, I don’t think I heard the word “ethics” mentioned once, even if that was the subject of nearly every discussion.

I leave you with the eternal question that plagues my mind: If nobody cares about these issues, should we do anything about them? Most people scoff at the question — “Well of course we should do something” in the kind of way that implies we know what’s better for them than they do for themselves. The deeper implication of the question is whether or not everyone should care about these issues. If so, what can we do to achieve that?

Answers, of course, are left as an exercise to the reader.


Home is a feeling

I wrote this a few years ago on a previous incarnation of the web site. I was reminded of it because of some recent events so here it is again. Minor edits made, mostly grammar stuffs.

I was inspired by something I read today to write about homesickness. First, let me be clear that I am NOT homesick; I enjoy Austin alot and would much rather be here than there (except for Monday nights at the Flying Saucer). But anyway, time for a meloncholy digression.

So about being homesick… that was me when I went to college. Yes, I cried when my parents left (no, I’m not ashamed of it, well, not any more). But there was more to it than that. I hated the high school I went to because it was full of fake people — not fake as in non-existant people, but fake as in “daddy bought me a brand new mustang for my 16th birthday” people. I didn’t belong to that click; I had my own friends, all of whom fell outside the Plano preppy-kid norm by quite a bit.

So when it came time for me to choose a place to go to for college, I decided to go anywhere that wasn’t Texas so I could migrate away from the Plano stereotypical people and branch out from my old friends. Most of my other high school friends chose to go to UT or stay close to home, and I can’t blame them either. I live in Austin now and this is a great place, but college was my first opportunity to get out of the nest and away from all of that for the first time, and I wasn’t about to pass it up.

And I ended in St. Louis, Missouri. And I cried when my parents left because they were the last tie I had to anything – ANYTHING – that I knew in my 18 years previous to then. For the first time in my life, I was truly on my own.

Then there was the bout of homesickness. Homesickness isn’t wanting your mom and dad or your friends – it’s about wanting something familiar. The intersection you drive by every day. Watching a video with your friends. The feeling you get when you know exactly where you are beacuse you know the roads or the buildings that well…

Homesickness lasted a while, but then I started meeting more people and growing new friendships – the exact reason why I decided to go somewhere far away from the rest of my friends. And my new freinds and I bonded and had fun, and the unfamiliar became familiar, and the homesickness faded.

And then came the first big homecoming – Thanksgiving. Everyone went home to see their folks and friends – and for me, this was the first time I visited home since I left school. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

The first thing I noticed were the little things – oh, he got his ear pierced. Wow, Texans really do have accents (you pick up on the slightest twang when you’ve been away from it for four months). Hey, how have you been? You know the routine…

Then I started noticing something different – like all the old bonds that we used to have weren’t quite there. That even though we were all still good friends, something was missing. I had missed 4 months of their lives as they were going through the same growth that I had.

But then I realized the biggest change – my own change. Even in a short 4 months, I had become a little more jaded, a little more grown up… And with my new freedoms at school, home just wasn’t the same place that it used to be. Sure it was home, but it didn’t carry the same weight that it used to. School offered something different — something unlike anything else I had experienced up to that point. I was more eager to get back to school than I was to catch up with my old friends…

And that was about it. I briefly caught up with my old friends then went back to school. When I got back to school, I had a disjoint sense of what home was. Home/school wasn’t home – it was my occupation for 9 months then I returned to home/home. And home/home was a temporary location until I went back to school… It didn’t offer the same sense of home-ness that it used to.

Now, Austin is home. It feels ‘right’ when I get back here. It welcomes me back when I walk off the plane or drive over the border or even going around town. Home/home is still home, but more in a nostalgic sense. My parents, the dog, old friends… That’s not to slight my friends in any way – I love them to death, but I’m only a guest when I visit now, not a resident. It offers a complacency that I can’t get anywhere else, but it’s not the same home that it was during my 18 years of living there.

Home is a feeling. It’s a place that you feel safe and happy in. I had no home for my college years only because it was too disjoint – family and old friends and new friends and new experiences. Now that I have some more permanence in my life, this feels like home.

And because I believe in not repeating what someone else said better…

When I see a place for the first time… I notice everything, the color of the paper, the sky, the way people walk, doorknobs, every detail.

Then, after I’ve been there a while, I don’t notice them anymore. Only by forgetting can I remember what a place is really like… so maybe for me forgetting and remembering are the same thing.

David Byrne, True Stories

and homesickness is forgetting and remembering those details…

So take this however you will. Just remember that a place is only as much a home as you make it.

Down with freedom!

CFP 2004: Preaching to the choir

The Computer Freedom and Privacy Conference for 2004 is quickly approaching and I’m pretty pissed off. This is a conference for exploring issues in, go figure, computers, freedom, and privacy. To me, it’s as much a catch-all as “alternative rock.” Sure, freedom and privacy are important, but then again…

I was checking the list of speakers to find the interests represented at the various sessions during the conference. I estimate that at least 3/4 of the participants are representing left-leaning organizations or universities (and university types tend to also sway left). Occasionally there’s a government official or corporate interest represented, but largely this is a “pat yourself on the back” kind of clinic for the liberal-type front line fighters in the freedom and privacy battle.

So who in their right mind would defend less privacy or less freedom? Of course everyone wants freedom and privacy. Just like mom and education and apple pie, nobody could defend decreasing freedom and privacy and live to tell about it, especially at a conference held in Berkeley.

Is this the most self-serving conference ever? I would absolutely love the opportunity to go and (fraudulently) profess my hatred of freedom and privacy. You know — explain to everybody how futile their efforts are and destroy their dreams that they’re actually “making a difference.” Bring blight and strife across the lands and leave a swath of destruction in my wake.

But I digress… I feel sorry for any representitives of the MPAA or RIAA and the like. They’re outnumbered and certainly will have many hard fought arguments ahead of them during that week. I’m on their side — not that I agree with their point of view, but I like rooting for the underdogs.

This conference is the ultimate collection of subjects that the left-leaning people care about that everyone else doesn’t care about. Does this mean we shouldn’t care about these issues? Of course not, but we don’t have solutions to most of the problems. Will open source software fix the issues with electronic voting systems? Absolutely no, and most people wouldn’t know the difference between an open-source powered electronic voting system versus a proprietary one.

My concern is the lack of concern about these issues. Surprisingly, there’s only one session about organizing people for protest and change, but that was about sites such as MoveOn.org and the like. The conference presenters are ice skating uphill; they don’t realize that most of their problem isn’t solving the issue at hand but rather creating a movement behind their beliefs.

And this brings me back to where I started from. Bring in more RIAA people, more anti-privacy folks, more anti-freedom advocates. Make them show their true colors. Piss people off. Generate a following of others not part of the intellectual elite or conference participants. These people are trying to start a rebellion but don’t realize it. Don’t they understand that the issues they’re fighting for can stir the passion of everyone in this country or maybe even start a worldwide movement?

I suppose not… Instead, they’ll enjoy buffets and organized discussions and leave the conference with “contacts” and not come to any new conclusions about how they can achieve their goals. If these issues are so fundamental to every person in this country, then why don’t most people care? Or do they care and are apathetic to the calls to fight?

Lawyers and technologists make bad evangelists. I think I’ll hire Mr. T or someone of similar standing when I start my campaign. At least then people outside those who already care might actually listen…