Friday, June 8, 2007

Big Brother is Watching...

Running off various conversations and perusing Boingboing, I've been wondering about the scope of privacy with all the new technology that is emerging. And the debate is getting shrill on both sides. You have people who don't ever want their pictures taken and posted, even if they are in a public setting. And you have others who contend that this first group are a bunch of wackos who don't understand technology and its penetration. And of course, tied up in all this is something of the debate over open source, DRM, Google scholar, and copyrights.

I don't have any clear answers on this, only a few observations. First, I'd love to see how Japan handles it. Second, I have to admit that the shrillness on the pro-tech, pro-open source side (for extreme lack of a better description) seems to me more galling than the other anti-tech side, if only because they've already accepted the increased influence of technology, but don't really understand why people get squeemish about it. It's that lack of empathy to a pretty understandable human reaction that I find disturbing.

Third, the pro-tech side seems to feel like measures to opt-out of programs like Google Streetview are sufficient. If you have the ability to get out of these things, then you shouldn't really complain. But I don't think that's enough. In basic photography, it's considered good etiquette that, if you take someone's picture (where they are clearly identifiable), you should ask them if it's okay for you to use it. Now, there's some question as to whether you do this before or after taking the shot, etc., but you are using someone else's image, which they may or may not be cool with. Simply as a respect matter, it's a nice thing to do.

The issue with opting out when you start discussing advanced technology is one of knowledge and accessibility. When shooting a movie or a photo, you can usually make immediate contact with the individuals to ask them for permission. At the very least, it is easier to make a good faith effort, because people are more likely to notice what you're doing. But with these other techs, it's difficult to know when you're online. In the same way that the recent Supreme Court case on gender discrimination was horribly decided, it seems galling that someone be reasonably expected to know when their images or identity are placed on something as vast as the internet and take legal and moral responsibility.

And this goes to an interesting question, not simply between the rights to property versus religion versus speech, but what we mean by public and private. Can we meaningfully "switch hats?" Do different protocols apply when we, say, run to the shops versus when we make political speech? To a certain extent, yes, in that political speech is governed by the first amendment, whereas running to the shops is governed by property. But to any observer, figuring out what is public and what is private is difficult to know, the moreso when you have the boundary of advanced technology taking the place of meetings and interactions between individuals.

In the end, my political sensibilities fire up. There is certainly a danger on the anti-tech side of too much privacy, of an inability to disclose anything for fear of embarrassment. This applies especially, I think, to government action and oversight, and you'll find no one more supportive of monitoring of public actions and roles. But, in the impulse to "democratize" (again, so not the right word) that is given by the Internet, the push against monolithic controls and eavesdropping which is such a common refrain amongst "Web 2.0 or 3.0"-ers must be tempered with the knowledge that "Big Brother" is not always a single organ. There can be just as much tyranny of the group, or just simply lots of individuals, as there is tyranny by one body. Just as there is a chilling effect when one group takes it upon itself to interfere excessively with other peoples' business, we have to be concerned about the stifling of expression and creativity if everyone is watching everyone else, particularly in public spaces. We watch celebrities because we are attracted to their public personas, but at the same time, most of us know enough not to want to have to constantly be putting up those personas. That's an issue that requires much more thought than is presented by the polarized debate.


HoBs said...

"In basic photography, it's considered good etiquette that, if you take someone's picture (where they are clearly identifiable), you should ask them if it's okay for you to use it"

I'd replace "basic" with "amateur" That is a rule that professionals or artistic photographers normally ignore, and the most well respected photographers (Cartier-Bresson among them), are often admired for skillfully ignoring it.

So from a legal perspective, the decision is clear. The supreme court decided as much that your appearnace in a public place is public.

From an etiquette perspective, I tend to ask people before I take their photo, but agree there are no hard and fast rules.

I guess the reason privacy matters is because people care how they are perceived by others. Adam Smith, before he wrote the Wealth of Nations, wrote about how fundamentlaly, people don't care about stuff, or about money, they care only about how others perceive them.

And so the importance of privacy, is that people want to control their image, control how they are perceived by others.

From an economics point of view, caring about your privacy, or your image is fine. Who has the default property right doesn't matter so long as you contract about it. e.g. who has the right to decided whether person A can take person B's picture, person A, or person B. Economists are agnostic as to who should. Either way should be efficient, so long as both A and B can contract. In practice, if A has the right, then A should be able to take the picture, unless B pays him not to. (akin to making it B's responsibility to opt out). If it is B with the property right, then A must ask B first before taking the picture.

I try to take a more taoist point of view. Who cares what other people think. Of course, I don't really believe that, but I happen to think that's a good rule to live by.

But again, whether you have an "opt out" system or an "ask first" system shouldn't matter to efficiency, but as a practical matter, one might entail more hassles than another.

The "opt out" system does entail lots of hassles, as chengora points out.

But the "ask first" system also entails lots of hassles.

Search engines like google only exist because the Surpreme Court allows the "opt out" approach for things like copyrighted material. Google would have to shut down if it had to get permission before it puts anything on a search engine.

Chengora said...

I'm not entirely certain that economists would be agnostic on this question. After all, while efficiency is an important touchstone, many dictatorial regimes are efficient. China's government allocation of resources is often surprisingly efficient. But a wider view would also consider that the violations of privacy and more importantly property rights entailed by these efficient uses of resources would cause many economists qualms.

And I think this has much to do with the whole DRM debate and more broadly the quest for innovation. Can you be innovative is you're constantly worried about people spying on your invention? Or are the costs from such pervasive "sight" as Google Streetview in themselves a prohibitive factor? For example, you wouldn't want to leave any experiments in your garage where Streetview could see it. That said, how many people are comfortable having stinky experiments going on in their house away from a video camera? And this is an interesting question: if something is in your garage, but someone spies it from outside, has a violation of privacy and property occurred? Almost definitely not, but you get the idea.

Now the opt-out idea. There are areas of the Net that Google cannot get into, like private or corporate Intranets, yahoo groups, etc. Google only indexes the publicly available information, as far as I know. It certainly doesn't access the files that my a capella group puts onto our yahoo group, for example. (Believe me, I looked.) So, I don't know if the fact that Google couldn't operate in an opt-in system is necessarily germane. It could be, but by posting on the Net, Internet users are specifically allowing for public access. They've already opted-in, which isn't exactly the question here, it seems to me at least.

HoBs said...

"violations of privacy and more importantly property rights...would cause many economists qualms"

Actually, that is 100% false (well 99%). You are thinking of pre 1950's economists and classical liberal philosophers.

Mainstream economists (accounting for 99% of the profession today) are primarily utilitarian. No paper that argued a point on the basis of principles such as privacy or property rights would be published in a mainstream journal. (admittedly, there are that 1%, found in places like U.Mass Amherst and New School that still treat economics as philosophy, but they are few and far between).

Economists like property rights, because we can show that they lead to efficiency. China is doing well not inspite of lack of property rights, but because they have introduced them; they have essentially created a capitalist system.

"Google only indexes the publicly available information"

Exactly, and streetview is the same. Google can't enter your house to take pictures. All you have to do is close your garage door. Google streetview isn't showing anything that anyone walking down the street already sees.

Chengora said...

"Exactly, and streetview is the same."

Not precisely. Streetview can allow people to look into private space. Simply because something is viewable, doesn't mean that it's not private. That's a big distinction. If someone taps into a telephone line, is that a private conversation or a public one? Similarly, if I hear a domestic disturbance, when does it become a public matter and when should it remain a private one? (This is a huge question that occupies police forces.)

And your point about economists. Many economists I know like property rights for the non-quantitative benefits that they provide (spurring innovation for example). And they went to places like MIT and U. Chicago. While I'm not an expert, I think you may be painting an overly broad picture of the situation.

Also, China doesn't have property rights. It's growth is founded upon the accrual of wealth, but that's not the same thing, since the state still legally owns all property and often uses that power. For example, evictions of residents around Olympic sites or the Three Gorges Dam. The system is much better termed a mercantilistic, not capitalist, which is an important distinction.

HoBs said...

Innovation is a perfectly quantifiable benefit. So certainly economists would support property rights for that reason, but not for some philosophical/ethical reason.

There's a book, An Economist's View of the World. That does a pretty good job at laying it out. Economists these days share consensus on a lot of things that non-economists don't normally see (and lots of disagreement about other things), but utilitarianism is one of them. (Though not strictly as Bentham defined it, as economists take a more rigorous mathematical view).

Evictions at olympic sites and 3 Gorges Dam is nothing new. It happens in the US all the time.

And in general, you'd probably find most economists support eminent domain (and support Kehoe), but this is not consensus (because there are quantifiable benefits to property rights in terms of investment and innovation).

And as for property rights in China, there's still that photo that was plastered everywhere a couple months ago, of the one house in China that avoided eviction, and thus stood alone in the middle of this big construction site that had already been hollowed out.

So it is a contiuum.

Chengora said...

Interesting, I was going to post that picture as an example. One thing people consistently forget is that, while eminent domain and forcible eviction happen in the U.S., there is a functioning system in place - with checks and balances - to provide for compensation and legal redress. China could have that kind of system, but doesn't. That is the major issue in most of these cases: what framework are these actions embedded in? You're approaching the Chinese economy with too many assumptions that it operates like the U.S., and that's a mistake. Corruption and political power play a much stronger role in the economy, from everything like setting up a business to determining fair value to manufacturing practices (melamine, anyone?). It is, naturally, in some sense a continuum, but we've discussed this before with regard to negotiations. The environment within which these mechanisms operate often has a controlling effect on the mechanisms themselves. It's a common refrain I have to make to people who equate the U.S. with...I don't know, Nazi Germany.

And after a certain point, even the best economic models cannot account for those ideas and relationships that are hard or impossible to effectively define, but nevertheless have an indelible impact on an economy's functioning. Frankly, it's meaningless to say that "economists" only support things because of a quanitifiable benefit. That's not true of even the hardest sciences (string theory anyone), and economics is obviously far from that. In my own conversations with economists, the points that they make about, say, the relationship between democracy and capitalism or the value of intellectual property rights isn't simply restricted to or even defined by the quantitative indicators. There is a visceral reaction to many of these, and one firmly grounded in educated guesses and beliefs.

Chengora said...

Also, I would love to know more about:

"Innovation is a perfectly quantifiable benefit."

since according to this DOC transcript,

innovation is often exceedingly hard to measure and, I would suspect, disaggregate from other factors. But it is an interesting question, and one I'd like to know more about.

HoBs said...

I agree completely with both "Innovation is a perfectly quantifiable benefit."
are "Innovation is often exceedingly hard to measure"

The number of planets in the universe is perfectly quantifiable but exceedingly hard to measure.

I have a 200 page monograph that someone just sent me on the economics of Aerospace R&D sitting in my briefcase that I am supposed to evaluate but have been avoiding. With dozens of citations to attempts to quantify such things. None are especially convincing, but you do what you can.

Though having the job of having to approve everything DoC says about energy, I would attest that they don't have many good economists there. But there are exceptions.

And of course, individual economists are free to have opinions on things that go beyond the realm of economics (like Democracy and what not). Free to believe in God or not. Krugman opines on things outside his expertise with regularity. Etc. But that kind of thing would never get published in a main journal.

Not sure what you mean by your comparison to string theory.

Chengora said...

"The number of planets in the universe is perfectly quantifiable but exceedingly hard to measure."

Oh, this is fine, but what we're talking about is a bit...different. It's like the opposite of the intelligent designers. They see a conundrum and say, "God is involved, end of story." But don't go too far in the other direction. Stars are one thing, but innovation: you have definitional issues at the least. Not everything is quantifiable, and even less are meaningfully quantifiable. The difficulty in measurement can come from the simple lack of instruments, but it can also come from disagreement as to what counts, the nature of qualitative research, etc. And for innovation, I'm willing to consider that it could be quantifiable. But there's still not real agreement on what it is, which casts some doubt on how "hard" you can be in arguing for quantification.

And in those cases, we have relatively little to go off of except our best guess. Hence, my comment about string theory, which is theoretically sound, but no one's ever been able to do an experiment. To a certain, limited extent, all disciplines suffer from the need to start from first principles and assumptions, and economics is no different. Even math starts from that premise. Ironically, the social sciences tend to be less prone to this, as there is usually agreement that a phenomenon exists, but very different understandings of what it means.

But perhaps we should leave it here? It looks like the blog has moved on, but I'll leave the last word for you, if you'd like.

HoBs said...

Agreed, that there is no complete agreement on how to define innovation. But many attempts and a reasonable working definition:

Macroeconomists define as productivity, any increase in output that can't be explained by increases in labor or capital.

e.g. if I can make 2 widgets a day, and I hire a friend, and now we make 4 widgets. That's not an increase in productivity. Similarly, if my friend and I are making 4 widgets, and I buy a new widget machine, so now we make 8 widgets, that's also not an increase.

But if my company is just me and my friend and a machine, and all of a sudden we are now making 12 widgets instead of 8. That increase is an increase in productivity.

And you can define innovation as changes in productivity.

We figured out a way to make more widgets, without requiring the use of more people or more machines.

Anyway, not perfect, and part of my reseach agenda is to figure out what innovation means in the context of social/political institutions, and not just economic.

My last day in DC is next Friday. happy to get lunch one more time before I leave.