Tags: surveillance

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Empire State

I’m in New York. Again. This time it’s for Google’s AMP Conf, where I’ll be giving ‘em a piece of my mind on a panel.

The conference starts tomorrow so I’ve had a day or two to acclimatise and explore. Seeing as Google are footing the bill for travel and accommodation, I’m staying at a rather nice hotel close to the conference venue in Tribeca. There’s live jazz in the lounge most evenings, a cinema downstairs, and should I request it, I can even have a goldfish in my room.

Today I realised that my hotel sits in the apex of a triangle of interesting buildings: carrier hotels.

32 Avenue Of The Americas.Telephone wires and radio unite to make neighbors of nations

Looming above my hotel is 32 Avenue of the Americas. On the outside the building looks like your classic Gozer the Gozerian style of New York building. Inside, the lobby features a mosaic on the ceiling, and another on the wall extolling the connective power of radio and telephone.

The same architects also designed 60 Hudson Street, which has a similar Art Deco feel to it. Inside, there’s a cavernous hallway running through the ground floor but I can’t show you a picture of it. A security guard told me I couldn’t take any photos inside …which is a little strange seeing as it’s splashed across the website of the building.

60 Hudson.HEADQUARTERS The Western Union Telegraph Co. and telegraph capitol of the world 1930-1973

I walked around the outside of 60 Hudson, taking more pictures. Another security guard asked me what I was doing. I told her I was interested in the history of the building, which is true; it was the headquarters of Western Union. For much of the twentieth century, it was a world hub of telegraphic communication, in much the same way that a beach hut in Porthcurno was the nexus of the nineteenth century.

For a 21st century hub, there’s the third and final corner of the triangle at 33 Thomas Street. It’s a breathtaking building. It looks like a spaceship from a Chris Foss painting. It was probably designed more like a spacecraft than a traditional building—it’s primary purpose was to withstand an atomic blast. Gone are niceties like windows. Instead there’s an impenetrable monolith that looks like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film.

33 Thomas Street.33 Thomas Street, New York

Brutalist on the outside, its interior is host to even more brutal acts of invasive surveillance. The Snowden papers revealed this AT&T building to be a centrepiece of the Titanpointe programme:

They called it Project X. It was an unusually audacious, highly sensitive assignment: to build a massive skyscraper, capable of withstanding an atomic blast, in the middle of New York City. It would have no windows, 29 floors with three basement levels, and enough food to last 1,500 people two weeks in the event of a catastrophe.

But the building’s primary purpose would not be to protect humans from toxic radiation amid nuclear war. Rather, the fortified skyscraper would safeguard powerful computers, cables, and switchboards. It would house one of the most important telecommunications hubs in the United States…

Looking at the building, it requires very little imagination to picture it as the lair of villainous activity. Laura Poitras’s short film Project X basically consists of a voiceover of someone reading an NSA manual, some ominous background music, and shots of 33 Thomas Street looming in its oh-so-loomy way.

A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on classified NSA documents, Project X reveals the inner workings of a windowless skyscraper in downtown Manhattan.

Relinkification

On Jessica’s recommendation, I read a piece on the Guardian website called The eeriness of the English countryside:

Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears

I liked it a lot. One of the reasons I liked it was not just for the text of the writing, but the hypertext of the writing. Throughout the piece there are links off to other articles, books, and blogs. For me, this enriches the piece and it set me off down some rabbit holes of hyperlinks with fascinating follow-ups waiting at the other end.

Back in 2010, Scott Rosenberg wrote a series of three articles over the course of two months called In Defense of Hyperlinks:

  1. Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification,
  2. Money changes everything, and
  3. In links we trust.

They’re all well worth reading. The whole thing was kicked off with a well-rounded debunking of Nicholas Carr’s claim that hyperlinks harm text. Instead, Rosenberg finds that hyperlinks within a text embiggen the writing …providing they’re done well:

I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I’d come out the other side with more meat and more juice.

Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”

The difference between a piece of writing being part of the web and a piece of writing being merely on the web is something I talked about a few years back in a presentation called Paranormal Interactivity at ‘round about the 15 minute mark:

Imagine if you were to take away all the regular text and only left the hyperlinks on Wikipedia, you could still get the gist, right? Every single link there is like a wormhole to another part of this “choose your own adventure” game that we’re playing every day on the web. I love that. I love the way that Wikipedia uses links.

That ability of the humble hyperlink to join concepts together lies at the heart of Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web …and Ted Nelson’s Project Xanudu, and Douglas Engelbart’s Dynamic Knowledge Environments, and Vannevar Bush’s idea of the Memex. All of those previous visions of a hyperlinked world were—in many ways—superior to the web. But the web shipped. It shipped with brittle, one-way linking, but it shipped. And now today anyone can create a connection between two ideas by linking to resources that represent those ideas. All you need is an HTML document that contains some A elements with href attributes, and a URL to act as that document’s address.

Like the one you’re accessing now.

Not only can I link to that article on the Guardian’s website, I can also pair it up with other related links, like Warren Ellis’s talk from dConstruct 2014:

Inventing the next twenty years, strategic foresight, fictional futurism and English rural magic: Warren Ellis attempts to convince you that they are all pretty much the same thing, and why it was very important that some people used to stalk around village hedgerows at night wearing iron goggles.

There is definitely the same feeling of “the eeriness of the English countryside” in Warren’s talk. If you haven’t listened to it yet, set aside some time. It is enticing and disquieting in equal measure …like many of the works linked to from the piece on the Guardian.

There’s another link I’d like to make, and it happens to be to another dConstruct speaker.

From that Guardian piece:

Yet state surveillance is no longer testified to in the landscape by giant edifices. Instead it is mostly carried out in by software programs running on computers housed in ordinary-looking government buildings, its sources and effects – like all eerie phenomena – glimpsed but never confronted.

James Bridle has been confronting just that. His recent series The Nor took him on a tour of a parallel, obfuscated English countryside. He returned with three pieces of hypertext:

  1. All Cameras Are Police Cameras,
  2. Living in the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and
  3. Low Latency.

I love being able to do this. I love being able to add strands to this world-wide web of ours. Not only can I say “this idea reminds me of another idea”, but I can point to both ideas. It’s up to you whether you follow those links.

Tracking

Ajax was a really big deal six, seven, eight years ago. My second book was all about Ajax. I spoke about Ajax at conferences and gave workshops all about using Ajax and progressive enhancement.

During those workshops, I would often point out that Ajax had the potential to be abused terribly. Until the advent of Ajax, it was very clear to a user when data was being submitted to a server: you’d have to click a link or submit a form. As soon as you introduce asynchronous communication, it’s possible for the server to get information from the client even without a full-page refresh.

Imagine, for example, that you’re typing a message into a textarea. You might begin by typing, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf…” before calming down and thinking better of it. Before Ajax, there was no way that what you had typed could ever reach the server. But now, it’s entirely possible to send data via Ajax with every key press.

It was just a thought experiment. I wasn’t actually that worried that anyone would ever do something quite so creepy.

Then I came across this article by Jennifer Golbeck in Slate all about Facebook tracking what’s entered—but then erased—within its status update form:

Unfortunately, the code that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.

Initially I thought there must have been some mistake. I erronously called out Jen Golbeck when I found the PDF of a paper called The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook. The methodology behind the sample group used for that paper was much more old-fashioned than using Ajax:

First, participants took part in a weeklong diary study during which they used SMS messaging to report all instances of unshared content on Facebook (i.e., content intentionally self-censored). Participants also filled out nightly surveys to further describe unshared content and any shared content they decided to post on Facebook. Next, qualified participants took part in in-lab interviews.

But the Slate article was referencing a different paper that does indeed use Ajax to track instances of deleted text:

This research was conducted at Facebook by Facebook researchers. We collected self-censorship data from a random sample of approximately 5 million English-speaking Facebook users who lived in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of 17 days (July 6-22, 2012).

So what I initially thought was a case of alarmism—conflating something as simple as simple as a client-side character count with actual server-side monitoring—turned out to be a pretty accurate reading of the situation. I originally intended to write a scoffing post about Slate’s linkbaiting alarmism (and call it “The shocking truth behind the latest Facebook revelation”), but it turns out that my scoffing was misplaced.

That said, the article has been updated to reflect that the Ajax requests are only sending information about deleted characters—not the actual content. Still, as we learned very clearly from the NSA revelations, there’s not much practical difference between logging data and logging metadata.

The nerds among us may start firing up our developer tools to keep track of unexpected Ajax requests to the server. But what about everyone else?

This isn’t the first time that the power of JavaScript has been abused. Every browser now ships with an option to block pop-up windows. That’s because the ability to spawn new windows was so horribly misused. Maybe we’re going to see similar preference options to avoid firing Ajax requests on keypress.

It would be depressingly reductionist to conclude that any technology that can be abused will be abused. But as long as there are web developers out there who are willing to spawn pop-up windows or force persistent cookies or use Ajax to track deleted content, the depressingly reductionist conclusion looks like self-fulfilling prophecy.