Monday, July 7, 2008

Taking Pictures Is Against The Cops

Check out this video.

There's a very strong trend on BoingBoing of stories where cops or rent-a-cops shut down photographers in public places despite the fact that in every case there is no law against photography in public places.

Meanwhile, cops in Philadelphia harassed privacy activists to an extent which appears very illegal, after the activists circulated a petition against law enforcement cameras; cops in England use crime prevention cameras to get closeups of your girlfriend's breasts; AT&T breaks the law wiretapping innocent people and gets away with it, even joking about it in public with no shame; and cops in England, the most surveilled country on earth, have seen no improvement in crime prevention from their cameras, because over-surveillance makes it harder to fight crime, since it destroys your signal-to-noise ratio.

To recap, cops are consistently harassing photographers incorrectly, and in some cases illegally, while undertaking extremely pervasive surveillance which is consistently ineffectual and often also illegal.

The moral of this story is that reading BoingBoing can make you paranoid. But the bigger question is: Why? Incompetent legislation governing new technology is nothing new, but why are cops and wannabe cops consistently telling people that legal things are illegal? Why are lawmakers condoning illegal surveillance? Why are cops and lawmakers consistently spending money on cameras which bring them no results?

I think the answer is that taking pictures is not against the law, but it is against the cops. Consider the Rodney King trial, which only happened after a citizen journalist got amateur video to a professional distribution system, i.e., the evening news. A huge crowd of cops stood by while a beating occurred; only the four cops who did the beating were prosecuted, and all received less punishment than popular opinion desired.

When the justice system endorsed the violence these police committed - violence which did not appear justifiable or legal at all in the citizen journalist's video - this news resulted in riots. Los Angeles was burning for days.

The Los Angeles riots were terrible; innocent people were badly hurt. You could say that cops take away cameras because they don't want that to happen again. So far so good. But this whole thing happened because cops badly hurt an innocent man, and then got away with it, all in plain view of the entire world. It would be pretty cool if the rise of citizen journalism resulted in an end to cops badly hurting innocent people, but most authorities are working to ensure it means an end to putting things in plain view of the entire world.

A cynic would say that cops won't take away cameras if they're planning to do something they're proud of. It's widely known that TV coverage of dead bodies in Vietnam helped end that terrible war.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented multiple accounts of the US military in Iraq firing upon or threatening to fire upon unembedded (meaning independent) reporters and camera operators from organisations ranging from al-Jazeera to the BBC. While westerners may question the accounts by al-Jazeera, they should pay attention to the accounts of reporters such as the BBC's Kate Adie. In some cases reporters have been wounded or killed, including ITN's Terry Lloyd in 2003. Both CBS and the Associated Press in Iraq had staff members seized by the US military and taken to violent prisons; the news organisations were unable to see the evidence against their staffers.

[Hitler's propaganda specialist] Joseph Goebbels pioneered the 'embedding' of reporters with military troops as a way to support favorable coverage; William Shirer was embedded with German troops in the invasion of France and Nazi filmmaker Leni von Riefenstahl was embedded with German troops in Poland.

Cops want to be the only ones with cameras for the same reason they're the only ones with guns. But it's not going to happen. Cameras don't shoot bullets, and genies don't go back in bottles.

Check out this video. I found it on BoingBoing one morning, and in the hour between finding it and blogging it, it was removed from MetaCafe. The BoingBoing window was still open, so I was able to video-capture it. It explains how to thwart camera identification with cheap electronics.

No doubt MetaCafe took it down because of its antiauthoritarian implications, but if you doubt such a technology could have uses that are legal, honest, and even righteous, think again. You might want to wear a pair of these yourself if you ever protest the war in Iraq. Police have taken to photographing and identifying activists at entirely legal political protests - and using that information as intimidation - even though the activists break no laws.

Feb 11, 2004 | The undercover cop introduced herself to the activists from the Colorado Coalition Against the War in Iraq as Chris Hoffman, but her real name was Chris Hurley. Last March, she arrived at a nonviolence training session in Denver, along with another undercover officer, Brad Wanchisen, whom she introduced as her boyfriend. The session, held at the Escuela Tlatelolco, a Denver private school, was organized to prepare activists for a sit-in at the Buckley Air National Guard Base the next day, March 15. Hurley said she wanted to participate. She said she was willing to get arrested for the cause of peace. In fact, she did get arrested. She was just never charged. The activists she protested with wouldn't find out why for months.

Chris Hurley was just one of many cops all over the country who went undercover to spy on antiwar protesters last year. Nonviolent antiwar groups in Fresno, Calif., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Albuquerque, N.M., have all been infiltrated or surveilled by undercover police officers. Shortly after the Buckley protest, the Boulder group was infiltrated a second time, by another pair of police posing as an activist couple.

Meanwhile, protesters arrested at antiwar demonstrations in New York last spring were extensively questioned about their political associations, and their answers were entered into databases. And last week, a federal prosecutor in Des Moines, Iowa, obtained a subpoena demanding that Drake University turn over records from an antiwar conference called "Stop the Occupation! Bring the Iowa Guard Home!" that the school's chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil libertarian legal group, hosted on Nov. 15 of last year, the day before a protest at the Iowa National Guard headquarters. Among the information the government sought was the names of the leaders of the Drake University Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, its records dating back to January of 2002, and the names of everyone who attended the "Stop the Occupation!" conference. Four antiwar activists also received subpoenas in the investigation.

On Tuesday, after a national outcry, the U.S. Attorney's Office canceled the subpoenas. Still, says Bruce Nestor, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild who is serving as the Drake chapter's attorney, "We're concerned that some type of investigation is ongoing."

The role of ubiquitous cameras is an important topic. It might seem appropriate for a debate. It depends whether you believe debate exists to clarify the obvious or to explore a question worth thinking about - because the reality is, although this is an important topic, it's not an important question, because it's not a question at all. Universal surveillance is fundamentally ineffectual. It just doesn't work. It will never produce any useful result, for entirely technical reasons. It is an authoritarian fantasy.

The problem with authoritarian fantasies, of course, is that authorities frequently indulge in them. Consider the War on Drugs. The authorities' delusion is that drugs are all dangerous and have no value; the authoritarian fantasy is that drugs can be banned. The War on Drugs hasn't ended drug use. Instead it's amped up the intensity of drug smuggling. I read a fascinating book by a hippie who used to smuggle marijuana into the States in the 60s. It was cute; they hid their drugs under blankets and got through the border by smiling and lying. It was Han Solo, all charming rascal style.

Drug smuggling in 2008 is not cute or charming. Drug smugglers in 2008 build their own submarines. I'm not even fucking kidding. I know it's insane, but in a world where George Bush still holds the Oval Office after losing two elections in a row, and the United States decided to follow up Vietnam with Iraq, it doesn't have to be sane to be true.

Check this out. Colombian drug-runners and their submarines:

Henao's cartel built on this and other prior technology initiatives, in part by creating what amounts to a narco research and development program. One early fruit of that effort, intelligence officials say, was an advanced version of a cheap boat called a semisubmersible. Shaped like the Civil War-era Monitor, the small craft cruises below the waterline, except for a conning tower where one of its two-man crew pilots the boat. The vessel has underwater propulsion, radar, and short-band radio towers. And it's virtually invisible to even the most sophisticated spy gear. "You basically need a visual sighting to detect one, because you're not going to pick them up in a radar sweep," says Hensley, the former U.S. Customs enforcement chief.

Semisubmersibles, however, are unstable, and narcotics officials think the cartels have lost several at sea -- one reason that the traffickers upgraded to submarines. According to the head of the Colombian navy, Adm. Mauricio Soto, the North Valley Cartel and other organizations have used real subs for years. Authorities believe that the Cali Cartel purchased a Soviet sub in the early '90s, and that its crew accidentally sank it off Colombia's Pacific coast during its first smuggling run, probably because they lacked the 10 skilled people needed to operate it.

More recently, the cartels have built their own subs, with help, Soto suspects, from Italian engineers who stayed in Colombia after overseeing the construction of the navy's own fleet of commando submarines two decades ago. Henao, for instance, is believed by military and intelligence officials to have a small fleet of mini-subs - used for, among other things, hauling dope to those toxic waste freighters. So far, Colombian authorities have found only two drug subs, both of which were under construction. The most recent one, discovered 21 months ago outside Bogotá, was a 78-foot craft that cost an estimated $10 million. Intelligence sources say it belonged to Henao's North Valley Cartel. A Colombian official says Henao wanted a vessel that could carry several more tons than the Buenaventura mini-subs and travel as far as 2,000 miles - say, to the coast of Mexico or Southern California.

Authoritarianism is dangerous not just because it is immoral but also because it is ineffective. When governments worldwide asserted inappropriate and intrusive control over their citizens' individual neurochemistries, they artificially constrained the supply of recreational drugs, without affecting demand, which pushed prices through the roof. If the United States government was serious about free trade, and allowed their citizens to practice it, murderous Colombian mafiosos would not own their own submarines. Demand would meet supply somewhere sane and rational, and we wouldn't have to deal with violent, dangerous cartels buying mansions and weaponry with profits from artificially inflated prices.

Something similar happened in England. Once gun crime was unheard of in England; a weird thing that only happened in the US. Gun crime happens in England much more today than it did ten or twenty years ago. The reason: the ban on Ecstasy.

Ecstasy became incredibly popular in England in the late 80s and early 90s, the time of the fall of the Soviet empire, during which time a great number of Eastern European mafias expanded into Western Europe, using former Soviet chemical labs to manufacture Ecstasy and developing extensive smuggling networks to bring it into the West. Problem is, eventually Ecstasy became unfashionable, that lame thing those old people used to do when they were our age.

So you have these gigantic smuggling networks and these mafiosos very accustomed to living well on the profits of these smuggling networks, and suddenly the volume of trade in the smuggling network drops by half, so the profits disappear. What do the mafiosos do? They don't give up their life of crime and get a job at Taco Bell. They look for a way to fill in the gap, some other product with similar profit margins, which they can also obtain from the wreckage of the Soviet empire. In a word, guns.

When governments do inappropriate things, lots of people suffer. Ban Ecstasy and you've got a gun problem. Ban cocaine and the coke dealers get submarines. But the inverse is true as well. Just as authoritarian moves consistently produce counter-productive results, because authoritarianism doesn't work, authoritarian programs consistently pursue unattainable objectives, because authoritarianism doesn't work. When you've dedicated time and money to achieving an impossible goal with an unworkable method, you're not going to be deterred by the fact that the individual steps to achieve the goal are all impossible too.

And this answers the second half of our question. We know why cops feel threatened by cameras - for some crazy reason, a few of them are still beating unarmed, innocent people in the streets in the middle of the night, doing their own personal historical re-enactments of the worst moments of the 1960s. Once in a while they get caught, they suffer some inconsequential "punishment," and Los Angeles catches fire. They want to prevent that from happening, but they don't want to give up their late-night psychotic episodes. That part makes sense, or at least, that part has a logic we can observe. But why do they want surveillance everywhere, when their own analysis shows that it doesn't actually work?

There's only one reason that makes any sense: because they don't know any better. They're so ignorant about technology that they wouldn't recognize a needle/haystack problem if it bit them on the ass - which, under the circumstances, it seems very likely this particular needle/haystack problem will sooner or later do. The problem is, when it bites them on the ass, it'll probably bite us on the ass too. Plenty of innocent people got killed or badly hurt in the LA riots. And plenty of rappers warned us it would happen, years ahead of time.

Today computers go everywhere. Anything you do, you do with computers. Governments do not understand computers. This means we are fast approaching an event horizon where soon governments will literally not understand a single thing they do. Programmers need to find a way to spread technical literacy, because an illiterate government is a dangerous thing.

Or maybe programmers should be glad governments are illiterate. Think how much more trouble they would cause if they knew what they were doing.

All these surveillance-happy would-be tyrants, camera-hating rent-a-cops, drug-banning puritans, underwater drug-lords, and oil-thieving war criminals should be in jails or insane asylums. But who would put them in jail? It all goes back to Juvenal's question, who will watch the watchmen?

The answer, of course, is we will; that cameras are an essential part of free speech, and anonymity is an essential part of free speech as well.

The Supreme Court validated, affirmed, and protected anonymity's importance to preserving a free society 50 years ago. Cameras should receive the same explicit protection.

By definition, anyone who watches the watchmen - anyone who keeps the cops honest - is against the cops and on the side of the law. Remember, they're not the law - they just enforce it, sometimes, and break it, sometimes.

The law has a long history, while cops are a recent invention. It's possible that in the distant future, cops may have no place in our society. That may sound crazy, but cops didn't exist in the United States until 1838. Photography first emerged around the same time.

From a technical perspective, what is the problem you need to solve if you wish to enable universal surveillance? You have information-gathering machines - cameras and microphones. You have a centralized information aggregator - an intelligence agency or surveillance organization. Does that sound familiar? It should. It's the Encyclopedia Britannica - and citizen journalism is Wikipedia. It's widely known that Wikipedia is slightly more accurate than Britannica, and covers many, many more subjects. That's because decentralized information gathering works better than centralized information gathering.

Universal surveillance is an information-gathering problem well beyond the capacity of any centralized system. It is an encyclopedia with many, many subjects. Purely in terms of what we know about efficiency and social software, it's impossible to have everybody under surveillance unless you also have everybody performing surveillance.

Does anyone doubt that Encyclopedia Britannica will shut down before Wikipedia?

Like everybody else fighting against new technologies, cops and lawmakers are struggling to preserve an ancient monopoly they no longer have any way to maintain.

From a short-term perspective, we are witnessing an assault on individual freedom. But from a long-term perspective, we are witnessing the fiery dying spasms of a mighty dragon.

Good riddance.