When we first started Zero-Knowledge Systems our strong stance on encryption and pro-privacy work attracted some interesting characters at times. Some of my ‘hall of fame letters’ include many people who wrote to us claiming to wear tinfoil hats to protect the privacy of their thoughts and thanking us for helping them protect the privacy of their computers.
In a recent article in Wired my good friend Jennifer Granick talks about recent advances in multivariate pattern recognition and functional MRI’s to accurately read subjects intentions.
From the article,
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, along with scientists from London and Tokyo, asked subjects to secretly decide in advance whether to add or subtract two numbers they would later be shown. Using computer algorithms and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, the scientists were able to determine with 70 percent accuracy what the participants’ intentions were, even before they were shown the numbers.
The study used “multivariate pattern recognition” to identify oxygen flow in the brain that occurs in association with specific thoughts. The researchers trained a computer to recognize these flow patterns and to extrapolate from what it had learned to accurately read intentions.
The finding raises issues about the application of such tools for screening suspected terrorists — as well as for predicting future dangerousness more generally. Are we closer than ever to the crime-prediction technology of Minority Report?
This reminds me of an interesting fiction book I read a number of years ago called The Truth Machine.
The premise of the book is that the democratization of technology and weapons of destruction being in the hand of lone bad actors capable of waging mass war requires the adoption of a transparent society where every conversation and business interaction includes a fictional 100% effective truth machine.
The author James Halperin has posted a free download version of the book on his website here. Reason Magazine did an interview with James Halperin in Nov. 2001.
While it’s an amusing fictional read, the book doesn’t deal with any of the hard questions about social values worth protecting.
What often goes completed unreported in the hype associated with the need for us to give up our freedoms is fearmongering regarding the state of violence in the world. Chris Anderson (Curator of the TED Conference) made his in his answer to the Edge.org New Year’s Question, Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View.
So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.
In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn’t make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.
We as a society have a lot of work to do to figure out how to embedd our ethics into our technologies and how they are developed, and used in our society. While it may be easy to hop on the latest technology like functional MRI to solve the problem, we don’t understand the impact of these technologies on our society to deal with the law of unintenended consequences.
Information self determination (the right to control how our information is used) and the privacy of our thoughts are values I believe are worth defending.
There are important values we as a society need to protect and defend in the face of the rapid changes occuring in technology. I don’t have a good answer on how to do this, but it was the topic of a panel discussion I participated on at the World Economic Forum with Bill Joy who had just written his famous Wired article Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.
Computers Freedom & Privacy 2007 is in Montreal this year and I’m happy that Canada is hosting CFP again. CFP attracts some of the Internet’s most interesting thinkers an I am looking forward to seeing many of my friends and the people who have been on the front lines on the fight for privacy for many years.