strengthens the black market for industrial espionage—many people
would pay to know the thoughts of
their competitors, people they are negotiating with, or even people they are
considering going on a date with.
Of course the state is not the only
institution that wants to read your
mind. There is great value to corporations in knowing about you. They
collect this data from phone apps
and operating systems, credit cards,
and web browsers; they use it to help
design their products, but also for
targeted advertising, differential
pricing, and other debatable purposes. People joke, semi-seriously,
that Google knows you better than
you know yourself. As well as being a
threat in their own right, corporations
provide an additional target of attack
for an intrusive state: as Snowden’s
leaks revealed, the NSA didn’t try to
track the location of every cellphone
on the planet directly: they let advertisements and tracking code in apps
collect the data for them.
Ultimately, the question of what
to do about the data accumulated by
technology companies is different
from the question of what to do about
the FBI, but it should also be understood that we have largely given these
companies the power to read our
minds, and might want to find alternatives to that arrangement.
We fear we are slowly moving toward the era of universal mind monitoring without having recognized
and considered it in those terms.
And those are the terms in which we
should understand battles about the
right to use effective cryptography.
That wonderful gadget in your pocket
is not a phone. It is a prosthetic part
of your mind—which happens to also
be able to make telephone calls. We
need to think of it as such, and ask
again which parts of our thoughts
should be categorically shielded
against prying by the state.
Andrew Conway ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is
an engineer and mostly retired entrepreneur. He founded
and ran Silicon Genetics.
Peter Eckersley ( email@example.com) is Chief Computer
Scientist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
San Francisco, CA.
Copyright held by authors.
Where is this heading? Consider
a future technological innovation—a
brain reader. It is a little device that
you attach to your skull that lets someone read your thoughts. This could
be a great boon to law enforcement.
Trials could be conducted more accurately by reading the thoughts of
the defendant. Even better, everyone
could be required to daily attend a
mind reading to make sure they are
not plotting any criminal acts. This
would significantly cut down on premeditated crime, making our lives
safer. Then we can concentrate on
unpremeditated crime. Possibly there
are some thoughts that people who
are likely to commit unpremeditated
crimes might think. We can proscribe
those thoughts, and then preemptively arrest people for thought crime.
While we are at it, the morality police
can put in laws against thinking racist, sexist, extremist, sacrilegious, offensive, or fattening thoughts.
While such an extreme society may
have a low crime rate, some people (
including us) may think this police state
would not actually be a better society to
live in. Even ignoring the horrors that
would result from imperfect readings,
who doesn’t feel guilty about something? As attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, “If you give me six lines written by
the hand of the most honest of men, I
will find something in them which will
hang him.” Such devices do not exist yet,
although the demand has been strong
enough that polygraphs, notorious for
unreliability, are widely used in the U.S.
Other technologies like fMRI are already being used and may turn out to be
slightly more accurate than polygraphs,
but we are still some distance from having to worry about the societal effects of
active mind-reading machines.
What we have instead is a society
moving toward prosthetic brains that
can be monitored at all times by the
state, without the inconvenience of
having to have everyone check in each
day at the police station. It may feel less
invasive to have one’s eye movements
recorded by your augmented reality
glasses when an attractive member of
the opposite sex walks past than to have
a daily visit to the mind reader. The former is certainly more convenient than
the latter. But practically speaking, the
effects are the same.
The available information is not
complete, and there will be gaps. But
you can inference an awful amount
with limited data. Think about how
well you know your friends, and how
you can often predict what decisions
they will make, with only the small view
of their world that you get from your interactions with them. With access to
a vast store of reference information
massive deductions can be made.
Conversely, the possibility of faulty
deductions is itself a threat to individuals. You would not want to have performed Internet searches for pressure
cookers and backpacks just before the
Boston marathon bombings.
Dedicated, well-meaning people
in law enforcement naturally want
to be able to do their jobs better and
make the world a safer, and thus better, place. They see the new data as a
boon, and law enforcement agencies
select extremely unphotogenic criminals and terrorists as the test cases
that will set the rules for millions of
other people. Unfortunately, while
this surveillance apparatus may occasionally be useful, it also poses a
structural threat to democracy.
Even beyond the threat of police
states in the Western world and elsewhere, there is a fundamental issue
with cryptography that mathematics
works the same regardless of whether
you are naughty or nice. So if the state
can break cryptography then so can
other actors. There are obvious direct applications to crime—knowing
when someone is away from home;
knowing who is worth kidnapping
and what their movements are; identity theft, bank fraud, and so forth.
But ineffective cryptography also
With access to
a vast store
can be made.