Is it better if they spy accurately?

There’s a fascinating article in the Guardian about how Berlin has become a centre for “digital exiles”, people — mainly Americans — whose online activism has put them in the crosshairs of various security services, leading to low-level harassment, or occasionally high-level harassment, such as this frightening story

Anne Roth, a political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells me perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.

Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.

But what was the evidence, I say? And Roth tells me. “It was his metadata. It was who he called. It was the fact that he was a political activist. That he used encryption techniques – this was seen as highly suspicious. That sometimes he would go out and not take his cellphone with him… ”

He was freed three weeks later after an international outcry, but the episode has left its marks. “Even in the bathroom, I’d be wondering: is there a camera in here?”

This highlights a dichotomy that I’ve never seen well formulated, that pertains to many legal questions concerning damage inflicted by publication or withholding of information: Are we worried about true information or false information? Is it more disturbing to think that governments are collecting vast amounts of private and intimate information about our lives, or that much of that information (or the inferences that also count as information) is wrong?

As long as the security services are still in their Keystone Cops phase, and haven’t really figured out how to deploy the information effectively, it’s easier to get aroused by the errors, as in the above. When they have learned to apply the information without conspicuous blunders, then the real damage will be done by the ruthless application of broadly correct knowledge of everyone’s private business, and the crushing certainty everyone has that we have no privacy.

It’s probably a theorem that there is a maximally awful level of inaccuracy. If the information is completely accurate, then at least we avoid the injustice of false accusation. If the information is all bogus, then people will ignore it. Somewhere in between people get used to trusting the information, and will act crushingly on the spurious as well as the accurate indications. What is that level? It’s actually amazing how much tolerance people have for errors in an information source before they will ignore it — cf., tabloid newspapers, astrology, economic forecasts — particularly if it’s a secret source that seems to give them some private inside knowledge.

On a somewhat related note, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has given concise expression to a reaction that I think many people have had to the revelations of pervasive electronic espionage by Western democratic governments against their own citizens:

 It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens… was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were,… but I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.


Billions, schmillions: Immigration edition

The Telegraph writes in big text

New report shows immigration over the Labour government years cost the public purse billions of pounds, while recent migration from inside Europe generated a £4 million surplus.

Then, in the main article, the study found

that recent immigration from Europe – driven by the surge in arrivals from eastern European – gave the economy a £4.4 billion boost…

More billions schmillions.

“Networks of choice”

I’ve commented before on the brilliant satirical sketch from the 2008 US election campaign, in which John McCain’s campaign staff discussed an ad accusing Barack Obama of proposing tax breaks for child molesters. “Did he really do that?” asks the candidate. “He proposed tax breaks for all Americans, and some Americans are child molesters” was the answer.

Last year, Home Secretary Theresa May applied this joke structure to the abuse of anti-terror laws to attack press freedom. Now the Guardian reports that the new director of GCHQ Robert Hannigan is keeping up this satiric tradition. He

has used his first public intervention since taking over at the helm of Britain’s surveillance agency to accuse US technology companies of becoming “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.

Fortunately, since it’s just the terrorists who prefer using Google and Apple and Facebook and Twitter they’ll be easy for the security services to target. The honest people are presumably all using the upstanding high-quality British online services. Because they have nothing to hide.

What does it mean, by the way, that the Guardian calls this a “public intervention” (rather than a speech, as other political figures are described as delivering)? It sounds ominous.

Wi-fi jumprope

At a recent committee meeting, where the provision of wireless internet access in our college library was discussed, someone raised the question “What does ‘wifi’ mean, anyway?” As it happens, I’d looked into that about a decade ago, when I was brought up short by a bizarre comment in an article the East Bay Express (a generally excellent free weekly in the Berkeley-Oakland area):

In the East Bay, cities such as Concord, Hayward, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek are launching or planning on launching citywide wi-fi, which is short for wireless fidelity.

I’d been a fairly early adopter of wireless internet, having installed it at home in 2003, before it was available in many public places (though I’d first encountered it at the University of Copenhagen, when I attended a conference there in January 2003; at that time my Apple laptop didn’t have any built-in wireless connectivity) but I’d never paid much attention to the term “wifi”, which seemed silly to me. I assumed it was a meaningless back-formation from “hi-fi” — odd in a way, since that term itself was so outdated, and even in my childhood I knew it mainly as a joke, as in the Peanuts strip (which itself was more than a decade old at that point) where Lucy boasts to Charlie Brown that she has a “hi-fi jumprope” — which turned out to be true. But I found it hilarious that some journalists completed the cycle, assuming that if “hi-fi” was short for “high fidelity” and “wi-fi” is analogous to “hi-fi”, then “wi-fi” stands for “wireless fidelity”.

Bayesian theology

I was reading (finally, after seven years in Oxford) Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, and found the following quote from John Henry Newman:

My argument was … that absolute certitude as to the truths of natural theology was the result of an assemblage of concurring and converging probabilities … that probabilities which did not reach to logical certainty might create a mental certitude.


And then what happened?

The linguistic conventions of reporting on trials are sometimes confusing, because of the way reporters are required to appear to suspend judgement until the verdict. The BBC reports

A pensioner has been found guilty of murdering his partner and her daughter after he shot them both dead at his puppy farm in Surrey.

On first reading, I tried to figure out how he could have first murdered them, and then shot them dead…