Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Private Eyes

By Keith McDowell

In 1981, Daryl Hall and John Oates released the now famous rock and roll tune “Private Eyes” whose lyrics begin with the line “I see you, you see me.” It’s one of my favorite songs, but it also hauntingly symbolizes a major theme of the horrific events that unfolded last week at the Boston marathon; namely, the exponentially growing presence of electronic surveillance and monitoring of our daily activities, whether by private or public sources, and no matter the intention, whether accidental or deliberate.

None of us doubt that the immense volume of electronic data collected and the subsequent use of crowdsourcing through all forms of social media including old-fashioned television led to the identification and capture of the perpetrators in a relatively short period of time. And none of us doubt that massive amounts of data are being generated and collected every second and every minute of every day about us.

We all applaud the successful outcome late Friday evening and thank the heroic efforts of all the first responders from the depths of our hearts. Like you, I was deeply affected by the obvious emotional trauma imposed on so many people who saw things no one should ever have to see or have to experience. And who can forget the stories of those who died and those who suffered grievous injury. President Obama eloquently captured my own feelings as a former graduate student at Harvard and a resident of greater Boston for five and a half years when he said: “This is personal!”

But like 78-year-old Bill Iffrig who was knocked down by the blast near the finish and who was helped to his feet by a first responder, we must travel the final fifteen feet and cross the finish line. And that means for one thing coming to terms with the flood tide of data about us accumulating on IT disks around the globe. Is our future going to be one where an all invasive computer system accesses all electronic nodes and watches over us à la the plot line in the TV program “Person of Interest?”

Who owns all that data and who should have access to it? Do your iPhone data and images belong to you? How about the content of your personal emails? And just what are the rules for accumulating and deleting data, if any exist? Furthermore, what do we mean by the term “data” or the term “access” when it comes to data?

I will never forget an experience I once had as a university administrator at a public university while attending a meeting of the faculty senate. I’ll leave the name of the university a mystery in order to protect the guilty. Several of the faculty were outraged that the university was requiring them to accept a new smart ID card that had a strip capable of opening locked doors when properly swiped, thereby controlling access to buildings and facilities. Such swipe cards are now routine in most hotels.

But the faculty members were absolutely certain that the smart cards contained a GPS tracking system capable of following their every move and reporting back to university administration. If only that were true! For several days thereafter, I had fun taking out my ID card at various meetings, holding it in front of my face, and speaking the following in a loud voice: “Scotty, you still there? Please beam me out of this meeting!”

Such nonsense aside, GPS tracking is a formidable tool and convenience. In 2011, I had a tire blowout on I-85 in northern Georgia. After attempting to change the tire on a slope and watching my poorly constructed car jack bend from the stress, I hopped into the car and dialed OnStar. They instantly knew my location, sent out road service, and followed up until I had a new set of tires on my car. Now that’s a great use for GPS.

But how about the GPS in my cell phone, or those surveillance cameras on every street corner, or the airborne drones – autonomous or not – flying overhead, or the satellites in orbit checking out babes on the beach, or the interception of all forms of electronic communication including juvenile tweets, or the cataloging of our medical conditions in health databases, or the data mining of our online activity and purchases, or whatever else it is that pushes your hot button when it comes to privacy? Of course, the National Rifle Association and Congress have made sure that we still don’t have taggants in gunpowder in order to track down the bad guys since that would be an invasion of privacy.

For me the principle is simple: there can be no expectation of privacy in public places or forums independent of the manner in which the surveillance is carried out or how the related data is accumulated. From that principle, our legal system should branch out in typical Talmudic fashion to parse the meanings of the words public, private, data, access, and all the other related terms in our vocabulary while maintaining the fundamental principles enumerated in our Constitution. Like many, I believe we have fallen far behind the legal curve in this arena.

We live in a new information and knowledge era exponentially changed and accelerated from previous experience. While social media and data have always been present in our lives and have always been used to solve crimes, nothing in our previous history really compares to what happened in Boston. Who could have guessed that crowdsourcing – including the peculiar and somewhat old-fashioned brand of shutting down Boston for a day by common consent – would help solve the marathon bombing in close to real time? Shades of the SETI@Home personal computer project!

Claire Cain Miller in a recent New York Times article entitled Data science: Tracking the numbers of our lives captures the essence of how society has changed. Data science, a subset of network science in some measure, has now become a full-blown discipline with academic curricula available to inquiring minds. And let there be no doubt, jobs aplenty are there for people trained and educated in data science.

Information in all its many manifestations pervades our daily experience in an unrelenting stream and drives much of our decision-making. Whatever the future holds for us as individuals and as a society, it is imperative that we embrace that future by taking the time to understand where we are as a civilized society and by learning from transformative events that occur, even tragedies.

We are all Boston.

EndNote: Credit for the amazing image of Bill Iffrig at the beginning of this blog goes to John Tlumacki of The Boston Globe. I recommend that you visit his website and peruse the many excellent photographs posted by him. He is truly a gifted and talented photographer. 

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