Privacy's yin and yang : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Privacy's Yin and Yang by David Sims

10:00 a.m. Jul. 21, 2000 PDT MONTEREY, California -- Astrophysics professor Gregory Benford says we're in the early days of an escalating "arms race" between software that invades our privacy and software that tries protect us.

He should know: he fired one of the first shots.

The UC Irvine educator by day, science-fiction writer by night, told an audience of about 1,500 hackers at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention Thursday that he wrote and documented the first computer virus in the late 1960s on DARPANet, the government network that evolved into today's Internet.

"It's not something I brag about a lot publicly these days," he said. At the time, he predicted the rise of counter-agent software to combat viruses -- vaccines, if you will. But, regrettably, Benford never moved on that vision.

"This is another story about how I lost $100 million in my spare time by not patenting any of this."

As new strains of viruses and spam come our way in the increasingly connected future, programmers will have to devise filtering mechanisms that can safeguard us from harassment via our cellphones, handhelds and other wireless devices.

"The controversy you're hearing about privacy will never be over because it is a matter of interrogation between independently operating agents," Benford told the crowd of programmers, whom he called "the people that matter most" in this scenario.

The battle will extend to persistent and ubiquitous computing systems that will try to ascertain our interests and appease us. "Lots of people want to know about you," Benford said. "How come? Because you spend money?"

Benford described a scenario similar to marketing visions of the future, but with a dose of reality.

"Fifteen or 20 years from now ... you're stopping off at some second-rate mall to pick up some shoes ... you walk toward the wall of the nearest building, and the wall starts talking to you, 'Hello, sir, welcome back,'" Benford said.

The wall recalls your last visit, suggests a similar store to shop this time and displays a map showing your location, "like you're an idiot."

In this scenario, the wall, Benford said, will be picking up your shopping history through an EMID (electromagnetic identification), even though you're trying to deflect its pitch by emitting a false signal.

In the future, most people won't welcome being detected and pitched, Benford said. Much like now.

That's not the picture that electronics firms like Philips and Sony want us to imagine, he said. To guard us from intrusions developed by one half of the world's programmers, the other half will be working on devices that protect our privacy with smart environments that buffer us from the outside world. These "smart butlers" will be part of the coming "comfy culture".

As our environments coddle us more and more -- some with the alluring voice of Marilyn Monroe, others with the discreet reassuring tones of Anthony Hopkins's butler from "Remains of the Day" -- the world beyond cities will hold less allure, Benford predicts.

"The natural world will be curiously dead, inert, not caring. Notice that that's an inversion of the standard American mythos."

But a backlash is sure to come, as any biologist will tell you. Benford sees it arising now in extreme sports and adventure travel, as protected citizens seek an adrenaline rush. "The flip side of comfy culture is bungee-jumping."

So how does Benford's message apply to open-source programmers?

"Every crazy thing you can imagine about the future will happen, and it will happen to people you know," Benford said.

"And they will blame you for it. That's what it means to be a software writer."

More than anything, Benford wanted the hackers to think about their role in a larger ecology.

"I think it's a good thing for guys and gals like you who write the future into your code to think in terms not of strict short-term markets, but rather try to start to think biologically."

However, Benford leveled his harshest criticism at one hacker who has done just that: Bill Joy (or "Bill NoJoy," as he called him).

Benford criticized Joy for his Cassandra-like warning in Wired Magazine about the dangers of 21st-century technologies such as genetic engineering and nanotechnology,

Benford called Joy's musings "hopelessly amateurish."

"He read a couple of books about robots and got alarmed. We've all done that."

But conference host Tim O'Reilly challenged Benford on his attack, saying Joy "deserves a little more respect," and credited Joy for getting people to think about the consequences of technology.

Benford acknowledged Joy's contributions to computing, but said his essay ignored a lot of the current thinking that has already tackled these issues.

So what obligation do today's hackers, many of whom weren't even born when Benford first let loose his virus, have when writing their code?

"My feeling is that the one duty you really have is the expansion of human horizons, period."

No matter how we plan for the future, Benford said, systems that surround our inventions are so complex that it's impossible to predict outcomes.

By analogy, Benford reminded the programmers that one of the cliches of science-fiction shows -- like the first "Star Trek" -- is that in the future, everyone will wear Spandex. But at the same time, Americans are getting fatter.

"Now think about these two trends together.... My point is that the future is really going to look different than you might think."

-- cin (cin@cin.cinn), July 26, 2000


I'll offer my personal opinions on this one, Cin, and they'll probably go over as big as those on pets one can't afford.

SOME folks simply don't have anything better to worry about. Who is worried about genetic engineering and nanotechnology? *I*'m not. Are you? If so, WHY? With only SO many hours in a day, and assuming we only consume so many of those hours of a day worrying, why would THESE topics come to the forefront of one's mind? Do folks feel GUILTY about something?

It's odd that you brought up this topic when I saw a headline today regarding how 55% of Americans were majorly overweight, after seeing another regarding something about employers and the "spying" they do on employee E-mails. Personally, I've always thought that the employer's resources belonged to the employer. I've never sent personal E-mail from work, nor have I ever accessed the internet on company time. Of course I always worked at busy shops and either chose to eat lunch while I worked [and leave early], or take a walk to get away from the computer that was my life.

The author sure has a point, though. I've not seen a fatty yet on Star-Trek.

-- Anita (, July 26, 2000.

Anita, I agree with you about not using work time for personal business. But I have to tell you, they just installed video cameras everywhere at my place of work. I think it's a huge invasion of privacy when you forget that all eyes are upon you should you have to scratch a private place or blow your nose. And the only place of escape is the bathroom. It's utterly ridiculous. It's not a federal building or a bank. And it shows I think mistrust and disrespect to the employees who spend their work day doing what they should be doing.

About obesity, in 20 years I wonder if there will even be such a thing. And by the way, genetic engineering does indeed spook me. Man is on a constant search for more and more power and they will never stop.

-- cin (cin@cinn.cin), July 27, 2000.

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