Freedom takes a hit amid online leaks

IN A BIND: Sony Pictures cancelled the release of The Interview following threats by hackers. The lesson here isn't that Hollywood must watch itself. It's to beware, period.


    Dec 22, 2014

    Freedom takes a hit amid online leaks

    THERE'S a square in the upper right-hand corner on your computer keyboard that probably looks more banged up than it did a week or two ago. It's the one marked "Delete". I'll bet that you've been giving it a workout lately, pressing it hard and often, moving relentlessly backwards over your e-mail, fretting and fussing and killing off nearly as many words as you birth. Are they open to misinterpretation? Is their tone too mischievous or mean-spirited? Delete, delete, delete. Better safe than Sony'd.

    And I'll bet that it's all been coming back to you and coming to a head: the invasive games that Facebook has played, the data that Uber holds, the alarms that Edward Snowden sounded, the flesh that Jennifer Lawrence flashed to more people than she ever intended. The Dear Leader is late to this wretched party, and the breach that his regime in North Korea apparently orchestrated is less revelation than confirmation. You can no longer assume that what's meant to be seen by only one other individual won't find its way to hundreds, thousands, even millions. That sort of privacy is a quaint relic.

    The lesson here isn't that Hollywood executives, producers, agents and stars must watch themselves. It isn't to beware of totalitarian states. It's to beware, period. If it isn't a foreign nemesis monitoring and meddling with you, then it's potentially a merchant examining your buying patterns, an employer trawling for signs of disloyalty or indolence, an acquaintance turned enemy, a random hacker with an amorphous grudge - or, of course, the government.

    And while this spooky realisation prompts better behaviour in certain circumstances that call for it and is only a minor inconvenience in other instances, make no mistake: It's a major loss. Those moments and nooks in life that permit you to be your messiest, stupidest, most heedless self? They're quickly disappearing, if not already gone.

    It's tempting to try to forget that by homing in on other strands of the stories that bring it to our attention. As last week ended, the discussion about Sony turned to the entertainment industry's hasty capitulation to threats of terrorism.

    "I think they made a mistake," United States President Barack Obama said on Friday, referring to Sony executives' decision to pull the movie The Interview from theatres. "We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the US." He added that the US government would respond to North Korea's actions "proportionally" but that it hadn't yet determined how.

    Days earlier, the focus was as much on the adolescent nastiness that the hacking of Sony's systems exposed as on the vulnerability to exposure that it underscored. You could gape at the way all of those temperamental titans typed and decide that they got what they deserved, just as you could chalk up those naked celebrity selfies to spectacularly bad judgment.

    But there's a bigger picture, and it's terrifying. We're all naked. The methods by which we communicate today - the advances meant to liberate us - are robbing us of control. Smartphones take photos and record audio. Voice mail is violable. Texts wind up in untrustworthy hands (just ask Anthony Weiner). Hard drives and even the cloud have memories that resist erasure. And the Internet can circulate any purloined secret fast and infinitely far.

    The spectre that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don't have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.

    "Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology - absolutely nothing at all - is guaranteed to stay private," wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a "reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don't do it. Don't e-mail, don't text, don't update, don't send photos". He might as well have added "don't live", because self-expression and sharing aren't easily abandoned, and other conduits for them - landlines, snail mail - no longer do the trick.

    We "don't have real choice", Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, told The Times' Claire Cain Miller last month. "It's not like picking up the newspaper and realising ice cream has too many calories and you can start eating frozen yogurt, information that people can act on."

    Mr Rotenberg was explaining a remarkable survey that had just been published by the Pew Research Centre, which found that overwhelming majorities of Americans seriously questioned the confidentiality and security of their social-media activity, their online chats, their texts - and yet pressed on with all of these.

    This isn't a contradiction. It's more accurately labelled a bind.

    Many people have begun to sanitise their exchanges, in manners that could be silencing important conversations and gagging creativity. Late last year, the PEN American Centre surveyed 528 of its members, including many journalists and fiction writers, and found that 24 per cent of them said that they'd avoided some topics in e-mail and phone calls for fear of surveillance or exposure. Sixteen per cent had at times refrained from Internet research for the same reason. There were issues they didn't dare to engage, stories they didn't want to touch.

    One unnamed writer who participated in the survey complained of "a chilling effect on my research, most of which I do on the Internet. This includes research on issues such as the drug wars and mass incarceration, which people don't think about as much as they think about foreign terrorism, but is just as pertinent".

    Another expressed the worry "that by the time we fully realise that we live in this condition, it will be too late to alter the infrastructure patterns".

    Maybe encryption services will help. Maybe what Mr Manjoo called an "erasable Internet" will come to the rescue. But that still leaves some essential forms of communication unaddressed, and enhanced protections could be trailed in short order by newly ingenious routes around them.

    "The hackers are going to get better," Mr Obama conceded. "Some of them are going to be state actors. Some of them are going to be non-state actors. All of them are going to be sophisticated, and many of them can do some damage."

    It's not just creativity that's in jeopardy. It's not just candour. It's secure islands of unformed thought and sloppy talk, places where people take necessary vacations from judgment, allowances for impropriety that make propriety possible. And these aren't, or shouldn't be, luxuries.

    Delete, delete, delete. That's a bit of your humanity being snuffed out.