The Internet as a Reverse Panopticon

C. Dianne Martin is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at George Washington University, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Information, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been teaching Computers and Society since 1983.

This article is adapted from one published March, 2013, in the ACM SIGCSE Inroads Magazine. 

In 1787 Jeremy Bentham, the British Utilitarian philosopher and penal reform theorist, wrote a series of letters in which he proposed a Panopticon (all-seeing), also called The Inspection-House.  His letters put forward “the idea of a new principle of construction applicable to any sort of establishment, in which persons of any description are to be kept under inspection”. For the next 16 years he was obsessed with the desire to implement his model prison design, which he believed would transform penal methods by drastically cutting cost through significant downsizing of the workforce needed to oversee prison populations.  He also felt such prisons would have positive moral value to the prisoners.

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Technology and the Great Transition — to What?

Douglas Schuler has been thinking, writing, teaching, and agitating about — and developing — civic tech since the mid-1980s, as author of New Community Networks (1996) and Liberating Voices (2008), co-founder of the Seattle Community Network, and current chair of SIGCAS. 

This essay is adapted from “Fighting on All Fronts” a commentary in response to the “The Question of Technology” prompt as part of the Great Transition project. 

Emerging—and existing—technologies are bringing us closer to the brink. And even if they turn out to be more benign, envisioning some technological advance as our salvation will waste precious time as the ecosystems upon which we rely move closer to collapse and the violent forces of authoritarianism gain power. 

All technology, from hammers and hummers to routers and killer robots, is intended to increase power: to do something cheaper, easier, faster, with more entertainment value, with stronger impact, at greater distances, in more places, or with greater stealth. Technological power, like economic, political, cultural, institutional, or physical power, is distributed unevenly. It tends to be accumulated by people and organizations who already have too much. Algorithmic power has accelerated those differences; the computer has helped create today’s staggering economic divide. Many of the world’s richest people gained their fortunes through such algorithms, and it is their ideologies as well as the computer systems themselves that are taking us in dangerous directions. 

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Electronic contracting and the illusion of consent

Brett Frischmann is the Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics, Villanova University. His most relevant book to his thoughts below is Re-Engineering Humanity (Cambridge University Press 2018).

This post is based on an article that appeared in Scientific American (February, 2019). 

Q: What do you do when you see a little button on a webpage or app screen that says I agree?  
A: Click the button. 

The familiar and incredibly simple click-to-agree mechanism is ubiquitous. We encounter it throughout our digital lives. It is nothing less than the “legal backbone” of the Internet, app stores, e-commerce, and so much more. Yet electronic contracting and the illusion of consent-by-clicking are a sham!  

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Chilling New Technologies for Surveillance

Technologists are creating increasingly more sophisticated digital technologies capable of monitoring us. 

The most mature technology is that of RFID tags. Now as small as grains of rice, RFID tags typically track the location and movement of items through an assembly line, warehouse, store, or library. The tags can also be attached to personal possessions such as clothing, passports, or cash.  RFID tags can be and are implanted in animals in order to track them in the wild. This is not now done to humans, although people may be carrying items with RFIDs and be tracked without realizing it. 

Other location tracking uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites. It allows mobile devices to know where on earth they are located, and also allows location tracking on those devices, and hence to monitor the whereabouts of a person carrying the phone. A chilling example of this occurred in a political protest in Ukraine in January 2014, when individuals who were in the barricaded city centre of Kiev received text messages saying ‘Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance’. 

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Censored contagion on Chinese social media

Contributed by Masashi Crete-Nishihata. Masashi is the Associate Director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

The Citizen Lab just published a report: Censored Contagion: How Information on the Coronavirus is Managed on Chinese Social Media, authored by Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel and Masashi Crete-Nishihata.  

Among the key findings in this report, we show that YY, a popular live-stream platform based in China, began to censor keywords related to the coronavirus outbreak on December 31, 2019, only one day after doctors (including the late Dr. Li Wenliang) tried to warn the public about the then unknown virus. 

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Social credit

Nosedive was the first episode of the third season of the British science fiction television anthology Black Mirror.  In this episode, everyone has a mobile phone which, when pointed at another person, reveals his or her name and rating. Everyone has a rating, which ranges from 0 to 5. The following happens continually as you are walking down a street or along the corridor of a building. You give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to each person you pass, based on your instantaneous impression of that person and the nature of the encounter, no matter how trivial or quick the encounter is. A ‘thumps up’ raises that person’s rating a tiny bit; a ‘thumbs down’ lowers it. The other person concurrently rates you. Ratings determine one’s status in life, and the ability to get perks such as housing and travel. Therefore, people are on a never-ending, stressful, and soul-destroying quest to raise their online ratings for real-life rewards. Heroine Lacie desires a better apartment; she has a meltdown as she deals with unsurmountable pressure in the context of her childhood best friend’s wedding.

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The age of surveillance capitalism

There is still time to buy a substantive book for the thoughtful techie or concerned citizen in your life.  Allow me to recommend two choices that were published in 2019.  One good option is my wide-ranging textbook Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives, enough said ….  But an unbiased choice is Shoshana Zuboff’s monumental The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  The author signals her intentions with the book’s subtitle: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita, Harvard Business School, defines and describes surveillance capitalism (p. 8):

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Deep fakes for manipulating elections

People generally agree that the Russians have for at least three years been election hacking, notably in the US 2016 presidential election, but also in other parts of the world, as well as in important votes such as the UK referendum on Brexit.  What happened in the US election was substantiated as early as in a January 2017 by a report from US intelligence agencies, and as recently as March 2019 by the Mueller Report.  These reports, and the landmark 2018 book Cyberwar by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, assert convincingly that this interference did in fact help to elect Donald Trump.

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