The Surveillance Society: A Public/Private Partnership of Prudes and Panty-Sniffers

First, the private prudes:

“A BASTION of openness and counterculture, Silicon Valley imagines itself as the un-Chick-fil-A. But its hyper-tolerant facade often masks deeply conservative, outdated norms that digital culture discreetly imposes on billions of technology users worldwide.

What is the vehicle for this new prudishness? Dour, one-dimensional algorithms, the mathematical constructs that automatically determine the limits of what is culturally acceptable.

Consider just a few recent kerfuffles. In early September, The New Yorker found its Facebook page blocked for violating the site’s nudity and sex standards. Its offense: a cartoon of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve’s bared nipples failed Facebook’s decency test.

That’s right — a venerable publication that still spells “re-elect” as “reëlect” is less puritan than a Californian start-up that wants to “make the world more open.”

And fighting obscenity can be good for business. Impermium, a Silicon Valley company that helps Web sites deal with unwanted reader comments, has begun marketing technology that identifies “all kinds of harmful content — such as violence, racism, flagrant profanity, and hate speech — and allows site owners to act on it in real-time, before it reaches readers.” Impermium will police the readers — but who will police Impermium?

Apple, too, has strayed from its iconoclastic roots. When Naomi Wolf’s latest book, “Vagina: A New Biography,” went on sale in its iBooks store, Apple turned “Vagina” into “V****a.” After numerous complaints, Apple restored the title, but who knows how many other books are still affected?


The proliferation of the Autocomplete function on popular Web sites is a case in point. Nominally, all it does is complete your search query — on YouTube, on Google, on Amazon — before you’ve finished typing, using an algorithm to predict what you’re most likely typing. A nifty feature — but it, too, reinforces primness.

How so? Consider George Carlin’s classic comedy routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” See how many of those words would autocomplete on your favorite Web site. In my case, YouTube would autocomplete none. Amazon almost none (it also hates “penis” and “vagina”). Of Carlin’s seven words, Google would autocomplete only “piss.”

Until recently, even the word “bisexual” wouldn’t autocomplete at Google; it’s only this past August that Google, after many complaints, began to autocomplete some, but not all, queries for that term. In 2010, the hacker magazine 2600 published a long blacklist of similar words. While I didn’t verify all 400 of them on Google, a few that I did try — like “swastika” and “Lolita” — failed to autocomplete. Is Nabokov not trending in Mountain View? Alas, these algorithms are not particularly bright: unable to distinguish between Nabokov’s novel and child pornography, they assume you want the latter.

Why won’t tech companies let us freely use terms that already enjoy wide circulation and legitimacy? Do they fashion themselves as our new guardians? Are they too greedy to correct their algorithms’ mistakes?”

Yes and yes.

The public panty-sniffers, as illustrated by the case of Petraeus:

“But what it has blown into is an egregious over-reach of federal law enforcement, and yet another example of the astonishing incompetence of the Attorney General. An AG who thinks “national security” investigations don’t need to be brought to the attention of the president, the congress, or anyone else.

It is, at the end of the day, an extension of the long-running feudbetween the FBI/Justice Department and the CIA that dates back to Watergate, if not further. It was basically Mueller/Holder’s chance to sandbag the CIA director for what is turning out to be nothing more than lousy behavior. And they used every available tool necessary to make sure Petraeus got run (btw, I’m no fan of the general).

“Law enforcement officers conducting a legal search have always been able to pursue evidence of other crimes sitting in “plain view.” Investigators with a warrant to search a house for drugs can seize evidence of another crime, such as bombmaking. But the warrant does not allow them to barge into the house next door.

But what are the comparable boundaries online? Does a warrant to search an e-mail account expose the communications of anyone who exchanged messages with the target?

The scope of the issue is considerable, because the exploding use of e-mail has created a new and potent investigative resource for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement demands for e-mail and other electronic communications from providers such as Google, Comcast and Yahoo are so routine that the companies employ teams of analysts to sort through thousands of requests a month. Very few are turned down.”

And that’s part of the problem, dating back to the bad old days of 9/11 and the broad powers the government demanded from internet service providers in the name of “national security.” Frankly, most of these demands for email and other forms of electronic communications should be turned down barring court-ordered (thus proved) mandates, but the Patriot Act took court-approval out of the ball game.

As it stands now, all law enforcement does is ask and the ISP delivers mounds of data on the user.

“Once Broadwell was identified, FBI agents would have gone to Internet service providers with warrants for access to her accounts. Experts said companies typically comply by sending discs that contain a sender’s entire collection of accounts, enabling the FBI to search the inbox, draft messages and even deleted correspondence not yet fully erased.

“You’re asking them for e-mails relevant to the investigation, but as a practical matter, they let you look at everything,” said a former federal prosecutor who, like many interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition on anonymity because the FBI inquiry is continuing.

FBI agents can then roam through every corner of the account as if it were their own.

Law enforcement officials said the FBI never sought access to Allen’s computer or accounts. It’s unclear whether it did so with Petraeus. But through Kelley and Broadwell, the bureau had amassed an enormous amount of data on the two men — including sexually explicit e-mails between Petraeus and Broadwell and questionable communications between Allen and Kelley.

Petraeus and Broadwell had tried to conceal their communications by typing drafts of messages, hitting “save” but not “send,” and then sharing passwords that provided access to the drafts. But experts said that ruse would have posed no obstacle for the FBI, because agents had full access to the e-mail accounts.”

None of which, folks, is a crime. None of it. Sexually explicit emails between persons who are having an affair are no more a crime than some middle-aged dude taking shirtless pictures of himself and sending them to friends (and Florida socialites…snicker).”

We are ruled by techno-inquisitors and they are no more fun than the old-fashioned brand.

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