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2009-02-12

Harry Lewis: "Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion."

Guests

Harry Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvard and the former dean of Harvard College. He is co-author of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion.

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Almost everything we now do on a regular basis, from sending emails, taking photographs, writing text messages, calling on our cell phones, downloading music, typing on our computers, and using our credit and ATM cards, all of it generates information. And every single day the endless information generated by our ever-expanding digital footprints is recorded, tracked, searched through, sold, analyzed, and saved forever. Some might call this hyper-networked digital explosion and its potential for collaboration and innovation a kind of utopia. But others warn that it also raises important concerns about privacy, identity, freedom of expression, accountability, and the future of democracy. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Almost everything we now do on a regular basis, from sending emails, taking photographs, writing text messages, calling on our cell phones, downloading music, typing on our computers and using our credit and ATM cards, all of it generates information. Each bit of this information can be captured, digitized, retrieved, copied and sent anywhere on earth in an instant. And every single day, the endless information generated by our ever-expanding digital footprints is recorded, tracked, searched through, sold, analyzed and saved forever.

Some might call this hyper-networked digital explosion and its potential for collaboration and innovation a kind of utopia. But others warn that it also raises important concerns about privacy, identity, freedom of expression, accountability, and the future of democracy. They argue that our digitized world might actually be closer to the dystopias imagined in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984.

AMY GOODMAN: The only difference, as our next guest points out in his latest book, is that unlike the world of Orwell’s 1984, we have “fallen in love with this always-on world” and “accept our loss of privacy in exchange for efficiency, convenience, and small price discounts.”

Harry Lewis is our guest. The former dean of Harvard College, he’s the author, along with Hal Abelson and Ken Ledeen, of a new book that explains how the digital revolution is changing our world more profoundly than we could ever imagine. It’s called Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Harry Lewis joins us now here in our firehouse studio. He is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Lewis.

HARRY LEWIS: Thank you for having me on.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, you walk into a store —-

HARRY LEWIS: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- and we see it increasingly, these video screens that, you know, are projecting ads at us.

HARRY LEWIS: Yes. And the thing you don’t expect and don’t realize is that some of them actually have little cameras in there, and they will have enough intelligence behind the camera to recognize your gender, your ethnicity, and to show you ads that are appropriate to you, which is maybe a wonderful thing and maybe a not-so-wonderful thing. And why should they — why should I see ads for skin products that are meant only for people who have different complexion than I do? It’s more efficient. It’s a wonderful marketing tool and all the rest of that. But there’s something a little strange about the fact that the screen is, without your realizing it, actually capturing your image.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does it do with that image?

HARRY LEWIS: Well, we don’t know. This is just a fairly recently released technology, and we don’t really know how it’s being used. Are those images being saved? These are the kinds of questions that you need to ask about any new technology. What happens to the data? Does it get saved away? There was a time not that long ago where that would have been a silly question, because there was no way that you could — that any store could afford to pay for all of the disc storage that would be needed to save the images. But one of the things that’s happened over the recent times is it’s now possible to save absolutely everything and to analyze it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the willingness of people to give up so much of their privacy — you know, as a reporter, sometimes I’m amazed — whenever now we have a major story breaking in our newsroom, the first thing some reporters do is let’s see if that person has a Facebook page.

HARRY LEWIS: Oh, of course.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’m amazed at the number of people, including major figures, who voluntarily give up so much of their information in these social networks.

HARRY LEWIS: There’s a — the latest Facebook craze is “25 Random Things About Me,” where you’re supposed to put twenty-five facts about yourself and then you send it to twenty-five people and ask them to reciprocate, which is a wonderful marketing ploy for Facebook, of course, because if you don’t have a Facebook account, of course, you want to sign up and get one, so that you too can share twenty-five random things about yourself. We love sharing information about ourselves.

Just a couple of days ago, Google announced its Latitude app, which is a thing that will enable you to share with your friends your location all the time and them to share their location with you, not the first such application, but because Google’s behind it, this one will get a lot of play. So there is a seductive quality to the fact that we are so willing to give up information about ourselves. And this is combined with all of the ways where we don’t — the situations where we don’t realize that we’re giving up information about ourselves and producing vast floods of information.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, I’m closing my cell phone right now.

HARRY LEWIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m turning it off.

HARRY LEWIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Am I turning it off?

HARRY LEWIS: Well, if you’re not doing anything on which the federal authorities might have an interest in you doing, you’re probably OK if it’s off. But one of the interesting things that I discovered in the course of writing this book was that the — since the cell phones are — have buggy software in them all the time, of course, there are ways to upgrade the software, that you want them to be able to do that. Well, under the appropriate court orders, the federal authorities, the FBI or whatever, can have new software installed in your cell phone unbeknownst to you, so that the off button, the thing that makes the screen go black and say bye-bye, does all that but actually leaves the microphone on, and relaying everything that it’s hearing, from the ambient noise, your conversations and so on to the authorities. That’s been done. And evidence of that kind has been introduced in court cases. And, you know, assuming it’s been captured with proper court orders, it can be done.

AMY GOODMAN: So they’re listening to you. I mean, you’ve got your —-

HARRY LEWIS: They’re listening. It’s a roving bug. It used to be -— used to be if you were an FBI agent, it —-

AMY GOODMAN: You’re helping them. You’re carrying your microphone around.

HARRY LEWIS: It used to be -— you’re so — you know, we’re so helpful, because, you know, it used to be dangerous work to go plant a bug somewhere so you could listen in on the conversation of a mob figure or something like that; now all you’ve got to know is get their — is their cell phone number. And then you can get the court order to get the cell phone company to turn your own cell phone into a roving bug.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Medical records. One of the key components now of the President’s new stimulus plan is this investment in the computerization, further computerization of Americans’ medical records. Is that a — that’s a job creator, but is it good for us?

HARRY LEWIS: It’s a very confused — this is a very complicated, very confused subject, because on one hand, you know, it is true that it’s ridiculous for one hospital to have to re-key all of the same information that another hospital has re-keyed, has already keyed in, or if you go visit a doctor in one place, that because of data format incompatibilities and so on. And then, on the other hand, you know, there are huge, huge privacy implications. And there already are very strict privacy laws relating to medical information, but frankly, they sometimes are so strict that they get actually in the way of epidemiological studies and so on that are of the public benefit. You know, something like the Framing Am Heart study, which is really the foundation on which, you know, people your age and mine have not suffered heart failure. I hope it’s not true of you. It is true of me, as it was not true of my father. You know, this study would be very, very hard to reproduce today, because the privacy standards are actually so high. That’s one of the interesting things about the privacy issue, is that even — the technology changes so fast that even our most well-intentioned efforts to legislate to protect it sometimes have perverse consequences.

I mean, if I can switch to a different story for a moment, there’s a very interesting case, with which we actually open the book, of a poor woman outside of Seattle, who a couple of years ago had her car rolled into a ravine. She drove off the highway. She couldn’t be found for a week. And eventually, the police located her, because she had her cell phone on her, and until it died —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is the story of Tanya Rider?

HARRY LEWIS: Tanya Rider. Until it died, it was, you know, as cell phones do, notifying the nearby cell phone towers of its location so that your cell phone can receive incoming calls. But when her husband walked into the police station, or called them and said, you know, “My wife didn’t come home last night. Please find her,” the privacy laws in Washington Strait, in every well-intentioned progressive impulse to protect women’s privacy, had been written in such a way that it was impossible for the police to quickly access the records, because, reasonably enough, if a husband walks into a police station and says, “I can’t find my wife. Please find her for me,” you know, the answer should not automatically be “Sure! We’ll track her down.” Right? So this was the case where the privacy laws -— you know, they weren’t quite right. They were well intentioned, but they weren’t quite right. And these are the struggles that we’re having.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you say — you write in the book that it was only when they decided —-

HARRY LEWIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —- that he was a suspect —-

HARRY LEWIS: Yes. They actually had the -— it was only when they placed him under suspicion of complicity in her disappearance that somehow her legal state changed to a point where the police could then access the records. And if — so if — he had nothing to do with it. It was just an accident. But if they had continued to act on that assumption, you know, she might never have been found. She was barely alive when they did find her.

AMY GOODMAN: A week later.

HARRY LEWIS: But apparently she’s OK, last I heard, anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to finding your friends.

HARRY LEWIS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you can track your friends. You have to go more into this, because obviously it means a lot of things. It means people can track you easily.

HARRY LEWIS: Well, you know, the interesting question is, again, who has the data? How long does it get saved? What does it take to get access to it? Certainly, data like this is, if it’s kept around and is available, is going to be subject to subpoena in criminal and civil cases — right now, you know, absolutely standard in family law cases, divorce cases, child custody cases and so on. For E-ZPass records, you know, the records of tollbooth transactions every time you draw through a — drive through a tollbooth transponder at a bridge or a highway in those parts of the country like ours that have them, your location is tracked and logged. And, of course, that’s the way that they bill you at the end of the month for how many, you know — but that data, you know, then gets used to say, “Oh, you say you’re going to be a good father to your children, but, you know, how is it that you never seem to go through the exit on your way home until 9:00 at night?” And so on, you know. So this is standard stuff in family law cases now. And the more tracking data that is retained, even though we use it for all kinds of enjoyable purposes, the more the potential is for it to be abused for other purposes, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Harvard computer professor Harry Lewis. He is the former dean at Harvard College. His book is called Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. Don’t worry, we’ll be back with him. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

Harry Lewis is our guest, former dean at Harvard College, professor of computer science at Harvard, and co-author of Blown to Bits. I’m afraid he’s talking about your privacy. Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

OK, Professor Lewis, talking about, let’s see, going into the drug store, and they say, “Can I have your discount card?” after you buy your little private products.

HARRY LEWIS:

Yes, this, of course, technology is not very new, but we don’t think about it very much. This is what’s known in the business as a privacy tax. That is to say, they advertise it as a discount card, where — your loyalty card, where by showing your allegiance to your store, they are granting you a small discount. But, of course, the price, the real price, is the lower price, and it’s only if you refuse to surrender your identity and your history of marketing, your purchase history, that you pay the higher price, because this data is extremely valuable to them. And, you know, they’re willing, as it were, to pay you a little bit, or to tax you a little bit if you don’t surrender it because of the analysis. But, of course, every time you do that, every time you are willing to ask for a fifty-cent discount in exchange for your identity, you’re also telling them, you know, what kind laxatives you use, or if it’s — how much wine you’re buying.

And again, do we really know where that data goes? I’m sure in the fine print somewhere on the long form or the little “I agree” box that you click, which no one ever, ever, ever reads what it says in those “I agree” boxes, and sometimes it’s fairly shocking what’s in there when you stop and think about it. You don’t know who that data is being shared with, unless you are very, very careful about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

I’d like to ask you about cable system providers. Obviously, with the infamous Triple Play now, more and more of everything that we do is going through one line of either —

HARRY LEWIS:

Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

— Comcast or Time Warner or a Verizon now.

HARRY LEWIS:

Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

What are the responsibilities and the limitations?

AMY GOODMAN:

You mean TV, internet and phone.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

TV, phone and internet, everything that you’re doing basically from your house now.

HARRY LEWIS:

Right, right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And what are the responsibilities or the limitations of the people who own the pipes, in terms of what they can do with the data that passes through those pipes?

HARRY LEWIS:

Right, well, the Triple Play thing is interesting, because, as you see, as you correctly pointed out, it’s only one pipe, and now it’s only bits that are going through them. We call them telephone conversations and internet communications and cable communications, but they’re really just all just bits. They’ve just kind of, you know, virtually in cyberspace split them up into three separate imaginary pipes.

And this is an old issue, actually, in America. It’s very, very important for the American democracy that communications companies just, you know, allow people to ship the bits over, the information over, as they want, and not get involved in the business of monitoring or controlling or trying to shape what it is that people are communicating over the pipes. There are precedents of this back in the days of the telegraph, where the Western Union made an unholy alliance with a particular one of the wire services, which wound up limiting what kinds of information would flow there.

So, this is, in the internet space — restricting ourselves there — this is what’s called the net neutrality debate. And I’m a very strong net neutrality advocate and was a little disturbed to discover yesterday that, of all places, in the stimulus bill, the negotiations yesterday, there were discussions about encouraging the internet service providers to do content filtering to try to filter out illegal content or things that might be illegal content on the basis of copyright or pornography laws or other things. And, you know, this is really, given how much of —- how many ideas and expressions and thoughts now flow through those fiber optic cables into our houses this way, this is exactly as though we were saying that because some illegal stuff gets delivered by postal mail, that we want the Postal Service to open all of the mail being delivered to everybody and see what’s in it before it goes to -—

JUAN GONZALEZ:

But when you say that there are these historic protections, my question is, because so much of the data is saved —

HARRY LEWIS:

Yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

—- in other words, there is still -— the companies may not be peering into it, but they are storing it in their system somewhere. Is that true?

HARRY LEWIS:

Well, they’re not —- we hope they’re not saving all of your email forever, but it depends on the architecture of the system and exactly where the structure is. I don’t think our internet service providers are necessarily saving all of our emails all the time. But -—

AMY GOODMAN:

Why not?

HARRY LEWIS:

But they certainly could. And in the United Kingdom, there’s plans right now to expand, so that at least the source and destination of every email not only gets saved, but saved in a centralized government database for terrorist tracking and so on.

And certainly, you know, if you think that when you’ve deleted an email — I’ve moved over here to talking about email — that, you know, when you’ve deleted an email, that it’s really gone, that is certainly a misjudgment. You know, if you use a service provider like Gmail, it stays at Google for a while after it gets deleted.

AMY GOODMAN:

A couple of quick questions. I was just flying to Atlanta and Washington last weekend.

HARRY LEWIS:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

I get to the airport, and I’m going on the line. They said, “You clear?”

HARRY LEWIS:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

So I said, “Clear?”

HARRY LEWIS:

Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN:

I said, “I don’t know what you mean.” They said, “Then go on the other line.”

HARRY LEWIS:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

What is this “clear” system?

HARRY LEWIS:

So this is another one of these price discount things. You know, you pay a little — you pay some extra, and at certain airports, many airports, you now get to go to the short line instead of in the long line, where you can get through more efficiently, which will create a wonderful point of attack for terrorists, because they now know which line is easy to get through, and they just have to figure out how to break through the identity-checking system that exists at airports.

AMY GOODMAN:

What is iris scan?

HARRY LEWIS:

I think it’s an iris scan and fingerprint scan, both, or something like that. But that’s assuming that the databases are accurate and all kinds of other things. So I —

AMY GOODMAN:

Google has vast amounts of information about everything.

HARRY LEWIS:

Yes.

AMY GOODMAN:

The issue of who finds out first about where there’s a flu outbreak?

HARRY LEWIS:

Yeah, so this — but, you know, in a way, this is quite a wonderful story, but it’s a very — it’s another — like the Tanya Rider story, it’s rather — it’s puzzling from a social standpoint. So, Google now is the first place in the United States that knows when and where a flu epidemic is breaking out, and they know that, because people are googling flu symptoms. They will say headache, runny nose, flu, you know, and hoping to get some medical information. And long before the Center for Disease Control — about two weeks before the Center for Disease Control knows about flu outbreaks, because people are actually walking into hospitals, and the physician records the diagnosis and then eventually reports it to Atlanta, where the CDC is, you know, Google can see it coming. So this is quite wonderful.

But then you say, well, why do we have the Center for Disease and all of those people in the government doing this? What does it mean that a private company now, you know, which has done these wonderful things, because it’s so totally unregulated, which is, you know, all to the good, you know, knows more about us than our government does? That’s a little odd, isn’t it?

AMY GOODMAN:

I mean, there was a big controversy when telecoms gave over information to the government, gave them a way to monitor.

HARRY LEWIS:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

What about Google giving over endless information?

HARRY LEWIS:

Well, Google – and look —

AMY GOODMAN:

And we know they have.

HARRY LEWIS:

I’m a big defender of Google. I love Google. Google’s a fabulous company, and I’ve got an endorsement on my book from one of Google’s top technical people. It is an absolute engineering marvel, unprecedented.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’ve got fifteen seconds. But…?

HARRY LEWIS:

But — but they know everything. They know everything, because people, without thinking that they’re doing it, you know, are telling it everything by the questions they ask. And they have the capacity to assemble a very complete picture of people on the basis of the questions that people ask.

AMY GOODMAN:

And who’s going to prevent that information from being given out?

HARRY LEWIS:

That is a question for society that I think we all ought to think about.

AMY GOODMAN:

Harry Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us. His book is Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion.

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