Monthly Archives: April 2015

Act 2: The Surveillance State as Public Utility

A friend confides in me that they don’t feel as if their job is a ‘career’, because they didn’t need a degree for the career path they’ve been on for nearly 15 years. No degree, not management, not ‘career’.

I respond that if a career means endless promotion resulting in management positions, then I never want to have a career.

Early 2003.

I’ve recently broken up with a long time girlfriend, feeling as if I’ve been asleep for the previous four years of life – missing everything important. I sit in a daze, watching our country invade the middle east with non-stop televised live footage of the war at hand, this is a first. “Shock and Awe”, indeed.

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Matthew Good solo album Avalanche, and his band’s previous release, Audio of Being.

The albums strike me as a soundtrack for a future dystopia I am far too naive to realize already exists. One song in particular ingrains itself in the forever memory store:

Here’s a quarter for the phone
why don’t you call someone and find out
how it is we can all belong
to something that no one
wants any part of
one day you’ll wake up and there’ll be
advertising on police cars
and your death will sell you out
as someone smart,
somewhat smart

Baby don’t get out out of bed,
just lay back down your pretty head
and they’re advertising on police cars

Days or months later, the hundredth article on the up and coming surveillance state in the UK pops up on slashdot. The tin-foil hat crazies go on and on about how one day the entire world will be this way, cameras on every street corner, state-sponsored cyber warfare, and so on.

Whatever.

One comment on the slashdot UK surveillance state story catches my eye, a slashdotter recommends we read The Light Of Other Days by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter.

Arthur C Clarke? I love the movie 2001, on to the amazon “books to read” list the novel goes.

It’s 1999. I’m a high school junior sitting in a Barnes N Noble reading a book about the world before 9/11, before patriot acts, before twitter and selfies.

I’m reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

The atom bomb book is a massive book. I determine to finish it by the end of the summer, always forcing myself to go read bits of it at the store – an excuse to get out of the house and feel social in one of those weird ways introverts feel social without talking to anyone at all; also an excuse to not pay $25 for the book.

Rhodes starts his book talking about Leo Szilard, one of a few top scientists who made the atomic bomb a reality. Rhodes recounts how many scientists involved with the project had typical scientist delusional fantasies: this new, bigger weapon will cause world peace somehow, because of course it will.

In the book, Rhodes mentions Szilard in particular was incredibly influenced by a book H.G. Wells had written before World War I entitled The World Set Free.

Wells’ vision of utopia in The World Set Free entails the invention of an atomic weapon that renders a major world city a nuclear wasteland, uninhabitable for eons of time to come – after this unimaginable event takes place, all world powers unite and become peaceful – free of war.

How crazy it must have been for Szilard to read these sci-fi books about a future that in part came true just as predicted.

I didn’t finish the atomic bomb book. Instead I lost myself in H.G. Wells stories, finding his short story The Country of the Blind a perfect summary of every argument with the ignorant and dogmatic, ever. Idiots rule.

2009.

A local theatre shows 2001 : A Space Oddyssey on 35mm. My wife endures 3+ hours of amazing, and never lets me forget about her sacrifice whenever the movie comes up in the future.

The screening pushes me back into another Arthur C Clarke habit, reading the entire 2001 series of books again. Unsatisfied, I browse my amazon wishlist of books to read and find The Light Of Other Days, the book the tin-foil-hat slashdotter recommended several years ago in response to the UK becoming a surveillance state.

I read the book, finding it both fascinating and terrifying all at once. The plot supposes a brilliant technologist invents a machine that can instantly recall or ‘see’ any point in time anywhere on earth, all-encompassing youtube with instant recall for any GPS coordinate you wish.

In the book, the masses are terrified by this all seeing machine – it shouldn’t exist, or it should be highly regulated, or at the very least it shouldn’t be controlled by a single company. Like the machine gun, and the atom bomb before it – the machine exists, it cannot be taken back or wished out of existence. The work’s been done, and now the world must deal with the consequences.

That’s Act 1.

2012. George Zimmerman kills an unarmed 17 year old African American boy. He’s acquitted.

Say what you will about a country divided, at least in the case of Zimmerman, we’re fairly united in our outrage.

2013.

Edward Snowden blows the whistle on the NSA, revealing a world-wide surveillance state that dwarfs the early 2000s UK stories the slashdot tin-foil hats were so upset about.

Haunting echoes of The Light of Other Days Act 1, indeed, the all-seeing machine already exists.

The Light Of Other Days: Act 2.

After the initial shock of the all-seeing machine wears off. The world settles into a steady-state. Life as an ordinary citizen is not the same as before, because the all-seeing machine has eradicated privacy – but at least it’s a controlled beast – it’s not like your neighbor has access to the machine.

Turns out, the brilliant technologist who invented the thing is a benevolent type – he doesn’t want the all-seeing machine to fall into the wrong hands, so he sets it free – the all-seeing eye becomes public utility, accessible by all – another cultural atom bomb, just after the first had settled.

Chaos. A billion divorces. A million crimes solved on day one.

Remember when they shut down that town near boston for a day looking for the boston bomber and found nothing with thousands of police officers? Remember how one hour after lockdown was released an ordinary citizen found the kid?

You know how Microsoft spends 500 man years with 10,000 QA people testing windows before it’s released, but then on day 1 after the release a million bugs pop up anyway because 500 man years of time is just one hour for every 1 million users that use the thing?

Like that, but sci-fi style.

All over again, world-wide outcry – the machine was terrible for existing before, and now it was even more terrible with public access – the final crushing blow to privacy. Privacy eradicated forever.

2014. A Ferguson Police Officer kills an 18 year old African American boy. He’s not indicted. Riots ensue.

More Snowden documents leak through the year. Huge tech firms form alliances to lobby the government, begging them to cut it out. The US Government responds with ideas about surveillance security holes becoming law.

Meanwhile, security becomes a hot topic – and it seems things are accelerating.

Slashdot stories abound about security issues being found everywhere. Nevermind Microsoft’s patch tuesday – now our ten year old wifi routers with firmware that’ll never be updated have security holes being disclosed almost weekly. Remember when the TJMaxx credit card breach seemed like a big deal, then in 2014 it seemed every major retailer had the same? Heartbleed? Truecrypt developers saying don’t use the product?

In reaction to Ferguson, cameras-on-cops becomes a relevant social topic. If there’s going to be a surveillance state, why can’t an ordinary citizen tune in too?

2015.

Social media carries stories of the surveillance war being fought in the streets – police officers smashing phones and/or harassing citizens for recording police actions on video.

A friend of mine mentions how the police in Fort Worth Texas have had dash cams and cop-cams for the past half-decade and it’s done a world of good.

My friend’s statement reminds me of my earlier conversation, about career ideally being anything other than management. My theory being that a manager isn’t there for the all-stars, managers exist to keep the screw-ups in line. A manager in my line of work spends perhaps one hour a month one-on-one with their all star reports. The very same manager spends half an hour per day per screw-up who needs to be micro managed – the manager’s job is not awesome, the manager is a babysitter.

The manager is necessary because not everyone’s a model employee.

Riots break out in Baltimore, in reaction to a 25 year old African American Male suspiciously dying while in police custody.

One wonders if Freddie Gray would still be alive if the all-seeing machine were on Freddie’s side that day he took a ride with the officers. Perhaps it’s time for a manager, or babysitter, perhaps an all-seeing machine that’s above the control of local law enforcement CYA politics.

The all-seeing machine exists – it cannot be undone. Perhaps this is Act 2, the point when the surveillance state becomes a public utility – openly embraced, rather than feared.

See also: Pandora’s Box.

Erosion of Privacy

See, this is why the erosion of privacy and data convergence worry me.

Sometime in the future, I will skype video conference my doctor for my yearly physical. It will be convenient, because I won’t have to wait in a waiting room for an hour for my appointment. Bonus: No blood draws or treadmill tests, because my fitbit 5000 health tracker gizmo will tell my physician everything she needs to know.

My doctor will inquire about my health, and I will, as always, say everything is fine.

Unsatisfied, my doctor will grill me with further questions, testing my lying skills from differing angles. I will, as always, masterfully weave a magnificent tale of ‘truth’ about how healthy I’ve been eating and how I exercise all the time (thinking about exercise counts, right?).

My doctor won’t immediately yell ‘bullshit’ based on my fitbit stats, instead she will try to gently prod my tall tale of health for a number of minutes – not because she’s unsure of the truth, but because in this day and age, seeing patients squirm in their blatant lies will be a sport or treasured hobby for doctors.

There will be popular T.V. shows dedicated to video captures of the funniest video conference physicals, and my doctor will have a small betting pool going amongst colleagues about who’s patient will be featured on the show first. Anything to keep the day job interesting, right? Right.

With enough squirming out of the way, my doctor will proceed to open a shared computer screen window for our video conference and start typing my name into google’s search box. Type type type .. “J-a-s-o-n-space-b-a”

Right around this time, when my name’s being typed in, my doctor will receive a 911 notice on her smartphone, saying one of her patients, a “Jason Baker” has a blood pressure rate going through the roof.

At that most opportune moment, my wife will join the video conference and say hello. The doctor will pause her typing and exchange pleasantries with my wife. The 911 notice on the doctors smartphone will subside ever so briefly, at which point my wife will ask how the physical is going. Next the doctor will remember where she was, and start typing into google again.

“k-e-r-space-l-a-s-t-space-5-space-g-r-o-c-e-r-y-space-r-e-c-e-i-p”

It will be at this moment that a “flatline” notice will alarm on my doctor’s smartphone, you know the one, with the adorable stylized/cuddly skull and crossbones emoji? The ‘flatline’ notice will be for the same patient as before, naturally. The doctor will crack a joke about how this happens all the time, and she thinks the notification/alarm notifications for fitbit have some bug in the latest software update. My wife will laugh, and I will attempt a grin while trying to catch my breath and noticing my left arm is feeling funny.

The doctor will complete her search request, five grocery receipts will pop up in full 16K hi-res glory on the video conference.

For a brief glimpse of time, perhaps two seconds, there is silence. One of those beautiful but especially rare moments where you have this out-of-body experience and seconds feel like glorious minutes or hours, all in slow motion – the kind of moment where you savor the silence and just take it all in – especially if you’re me, and you already know what your wife and doctor are realizing.

Slow motion moment over, with a scream: “WHAT THE HELL, JASON?”

(Just to be explicitly clear, it’s my wife..)

“What the hell, Jason? Four fridays in a row where all you bought was those ‘drumstick’ ice cream cones?” – my doctor starts seeing dollar signs, thinking about how the betting pool with colleagues is up to about five grand – “I thought you said you were going to the corner store to buy an ice cream, and you came home with a single ice cream, but these receipts are showing that you bought four-packs of the ice cream 4 weeks in a row?! What do you have to say for yourself?!?!” – the doctor is deciding between somewhere nice in the carribean or perhaps a nice trip to tahiti – I am sinking in my chair, slowly dipping out of view of the video conference camera, VERY carefully checking my desk to ensure none of the candy bar wrappers are actually in view of the video conference camera.

“One moment ladies, I need a restroom break.”

I take the moment to collect myself. I wave my hand in front of the faucet with a gesture to the left and cold water comes on. Yeah yeah, the water is wired backwards – it’s actually piped in correctly, but we bought the microsoft or google faucet, not the apple one. It was half the price, sue me. Anyway, I splash some cold water on my face and towel it and the sweat from my face. I give myself a moment for my tell-tale nostrils to stop flaring the “he’s telling a big fat fucking lie right now” flare of betrayal – and I return.

As before, I weave a wondrous tale of something ludicrous, probably something that starts with “sorry honey”.

“Sorry, honey – I’ve been buying ice creams and splitting them with your dad – you know how he’s having a really hard time right now because they canceled the bachelor series last month after someone was killed on live tv (ratings and profits, they must go ever upward, right? right.) – so I’ve been buying a 4 pack to conceal our secret meetings, he eats 2, and I eat one.”

The moment I name drop my father in law, my wife will already be speed dialing him, by the time I finish my story his video will be starting to come online. 5 minutes later we’ve troubleshooted his video conferencing problems (poured water on the microphone again), and my wife will ask her father about our clandestine ice cream meetings.

My father-in-law will sense hot water so he backs me up in these fantastic lies.

Usually, in this type of scenario he’d be overly jolly to either make the lie more fantastic to poke-the-bear (that’s what we call it), or – if it were truth – he’d be excited to recount the fun he’s been having. My father-in-law is a smart man though, and he will have noticed the white-coat, and he will have noticed that my wife an I’s faces are the exact same shade of red, and he will notice my nostrils flaring like a maniac, so instead of weaving a tale, he’ll just stop with a confirmation of my fantastic tale, without adding his characteristic ‘enhancements’.

If my tell is nostrils flaring, my father-in-laws is an answer to any question being less than 300 words. My wife will of course pick up on this and immediately speed dial the oracle of truth, mother-in-law. Mom-in-law’s video starts coming online, and I will see my story and my ice cream adventures falling apart in my mind.

Being a computer programmer, and a good boy scout who’s always prepared when it comes to doctors visits, I will quickly execute a command on my computer to wget a super-secret crash-in-laws-computer webservice I had installed earlier in the month when I helped install a computer game (i knew i had a physical coming up, so sue me). At that moment my in-laws will mysteriously drop from the video conference.

I will muse aloud that they must have spilled water on the mic again, and note that our time’s almost up.

Some while back, our doctor will have decided on tahiti and made herself some popcorn to watch me sweat on the stand while testifying. With in-laws out of the picture, my doctor and wife confer on a diet plan for me and I start to become irate. “I didn’t even eat but one ice cream a week, give me a break, this is bullshit.” My doctor will calmly interject – “but, your fitbit 5000 is showing me that you had around 2000 calories of sugar within a half hour for each of these mystery ice cream trips?” – the doctor will silently think to herself: “ZING!”

The doctor tags out, my wife enters the ring and we go another round about truth and half-truths, my nostrils flaring furiously.

We’re getting nowhere, which is to say, I’m winning, and perhaps maybe, just maybe, saving myself from a fitbit 5000 monitored diet. If I win, I am most definitely going to the grocery store for a 4 pack of ice cream in celebration – naturally.

Time really is running out, and the doctor’s nurse has slipped her a note about a patient with the flu.

The doctor starts to wrap up, but she leaves us with a parting-shot. She quickly pulls up google again and starts typing again “j-a-s-o-n-space-b-a-k-e-r-space-5-space-y-e-a-r-space-g-p-s-space-h-e-a-t-m-a-p-space-n-e-a-r-space-g-r-o-c-e-r-y”.

At first, as I watch the doctor type, the pure geek in me will be curious what new google feature my doctor has found, I won’t be able to control my geek and I’ll start asking the doctor questions rapid-fire: what this will be and where she heard about this and so on, but before I’ve even started, she’ll click “i’m feeling lucky”.

And there it will be. A heat map of my favorite grocery store. You know the type, like a crime heat map where areas with no coloration indicate zero crime, green indicates non-zero crime, and bright-red indicates the-wire-style gentrification is around the corner? Right, that kind of map.

The grocery store map will naturally show a bright red area around the registers and the front doors, a token amount of green in the veggie aisle, but there in the middle, slightly more red than my face, will be what we all knew would be there: bright red lines from front door through the candy aisle and ice cream aisle.

The last thing I’ll remember will be my headset’s speakers clipping out from the sheer ferociousness of my wife’s instinctive tirade she’ll launch without pause, and then I’ll click the ‘hangup’ icon.

Don’t worry. I’ll go out for one last four-pack of ice cream anyway.

And that’s how I will become the four-pack-ice-cream guy on the hit tv show ‘americas funniest physicals’.