Category Archives: 0f72ce99-99e0-4fff-9b02-7c9c7457ab6c

PRISM, Xbox One Kinect, Privacy and Semantics

loose lips

It’s interesting that at one time getting people to keep quiet was a priority for the government.  During World War II the government promoted a major advertising campaign to remind people that “loose lips sink ships.”  During war time (back when wars were temporary affairs), it was standard practice to suppress the flow of information and censor personal letters to ensure that useful information would not fall into enemy hands.  In a sense, privacy and national security were one.

Recent leaks about the NSA’s PRISM program suggest that things have dramatically changed.  We’ve realized for several years now that our cell phone service providers, our social networks, and our search engines are constantly tracking our physical and digital movements and mining that data for marketing.  We basically have traded our privacy for convenience in the same way that we accept ads on TV and on the Internet in exchange for free content. 

The dark side of all this is when all of this information is being passed along to third parties we didn’t even know about until we start getting junk mail in our inboxes for products we have no interest in.

What we only suspected, until now, was that the infrastructure that has been built to support these transactions of personal information for services were also of interest to our government and that we are sharing our identifying information not only with content providers, service providers, spammers and junk mailers but also with the United States security apparatus.  Now that all that information has been collected, the government wants to mine it also.

We don’t live in a police state today.  I don’t belong to either the far right wing nor the far left wing – I’m neither an occupier nor a tea partay kind of guy – so I also don’t believe we are even close to slipping into a police state in the near future.  I’m not concerned that the government will or ever will use this information to track me down and I am pretty confident that all this data mining will mainly be used only to track down terrorists and to send me unwanted emails.  And yet, it bugs me on a visceral level that people are going through my stuff, whatever that ethereal stuff actually is.

Gears of War

The main argument against this cooties feeling about my privacy is that only metadata is being inspected and not actual content.  Unfortunately, this seems like a porous boundary to me.  To paraphrase Hegel’s overarching criticism of Kant, whenever we draw a line we also necessarily have to cross over it at the same time.  From everything I know about software, the only way to gather metadata is to inspect the content in order to generate metadata about it.  For instance, when a government computer system listens to phone traffic in order to pick out key words and constellations of words, it still has to listen to all the other words first in order to pick out what it is interested in. 

Moreover, according to Slate, the data mining being done by PRISM is incredibly broad:

It appears the National Security Agency’s sweeping surveillance is not something only Verizon customers should be concerned about. The agency has also reportedly obtained access to the central servers of major U.S. Internet companies as part of a secret program that involves the monitoring of emails, file transfers, photos, videos, chats, and even live surveillance of search terms.

The semantics of Privacy today, as defined under the regime of the NSA, doesn’t mean no one is listening to what you are saying – it just means no one cares.  The best way to protect one’s privacy today is to simply be boring.

At the same time that all these revelations about PRISM were coming out (in fact on the very same day), Microsoft released a brief about privacy concerns around the new Xbox One’s Kinect peripheral.  Here’s an attempted explanation of the brief on Windows Phone Central I found particularly fascinating:

A lot of people feared that the Kinect would be able to listen to you when the Xbox One was off. Apparently, when off, the Xbox One is only listening for one command in its low-power state: “Xbox On”. It’s nice to know that you’re in control when the Kinect is on, off or paused. Some games though will require Kinect functionality (again, at the discretion of the game developers/publisher). That’s up to you to play or not play those games.


The author’s reassurance is based on a semantic sleight-of-hand.  The Kinect is not listening to you, according to the author, because it “is only listening for one command.”  This is an honest mistake, but a dangerous one.  In fact, in order to listen for one command, the Kinect has to have that microphone turned on and listening to everything anyone is saying.  What it is actually doing is only acting on one command – and hopefully throwing away everything else.  Additionally I do have a bit of experience with Microsoft’s speech recognition technology both on the Kinect and on the PC, and the “low-power state” modifier doesn’t particularly make sense.  It takes a similar amount of effort to identify insignificant data as it does to identify significant data, AFAIK. (There’s always the possibility that the Xbox Kinect has an on-board language processor just to listen for this one command that is separate from the rest of its speech recognition processing chain – but I haven’t heard about anything like that so far.)

Halo IV

The original Microsoft brief called Privacy by Design, upon which I assume the Windows Phone Central post is based, doesn’t play this particular semantic game – though it plays another.  At the same time, it also seems particularly and intentionally vague about certain points.

The semantic game in Microsoft’s Privacy post is around the term ‘design’.  Does design  here refer to the hardware design, the software architecture, the usability design or the marketing campaign?  These are all things that are encompassed by the term design and, in the linked article, privacy could be referring to any of them.  If it refers to the marketing campaign and UX, as it probably does, this doesn’t actually provide me any guarantees of privacy.  All it tells me is that Microsoft doesn’t initially intend to use the new Kinect sitting in my living room to collect random conversations.  ‘Design’ may refer to the initial software architecture, but this doesn’t provide us with any particular guarantees since any post-release software update can change the way the software works.

To put this another, way, the article describes Microsoft’s intent but doesn’t provide any guarantees.  Is there anything in the hardware that will prevent speech data from being mined in the future?  Probably not.  In that case, is there anything in the licensing that prevents Microsoft from mining this data?  Microsoft’s privacy brief doesn’t even touch on this.

So should you be concerned?  Totally – and here’s why.  In its pursuit of security, the NSA has instituted an infrastructure that performs better and better the more information it is fed.  Do terrorists play Xbox?  I have no idea.  Would the NSA want all that data anyways? 

Call of Duty

Hypothetically, the new Xbox One and the Kinect can collect this information on us.  Here’s how.  According to recent Microsoft announcements, the Xbox One must be connected to the Internet once every 24 hours in order to play games on it.  The new Kinect is designed to always be on and I am obligated to have it (I can’t buy a Kinect One without it).  Even when my Xbox One is off, my Kinect is still on listening for a command to turn it on.  The infrastructure is there and the NSA’s PRISM project is a monster that is hungry for it.

To be clear, I don’t think Microsoft is particularly interested in collecting this data.  Microsoft has no particular use for the typically rather boring conversations I have in my living room.  They won’t be gleaning any particularly useful marketing information from my conversations either. 

Nevertheless, I think it would be extremely forward looking of Microsoft to explain what they have put in place to prevent the government from ever issuing a request for this data and getting it the way they have already gotten other data, so far, from Verizon, AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.

Has Microsoft designed a mechanism, either through hardware or through a customer agreement they won’t/can’t rescind in the future, that will future proof my privacy?

Expertise and Authority

In my late teens, I went through a period of wanting to be a diplomat for the State Department.  The prospect of traveling, learning languages, and being an actor in world history appealed to me.  My father, a former case officer in Vietnam, recommended joining the CIA instead.  As he put it to me (and as old Company hands had put it to him), diplomats only ever think they know what is going on in a given country.  It is the spies that really know.

The knowledgeableness — and even competence — of intelligence agencies have been called into question over the past few years with the inability to track down bin Laden and, before that, the inability to accurately assess Iraq’s nuclear capabilities.  I was surprised to read recently in an article by John Le Carré for The New Yorker that, contrary to my father’s impression, this may have long been the case.

Discussing his time as an insider in British intelligence, Le Carré writes about his disappointment with the discrepancy between what he had imagined it to be and what it turned out to actually be.  In terms reminiscent of the longings of many career professionals, he describes “fantasizing about a real British secret service, somewhere else, that did everything right that we either did wrong or didn’t do at all.”

As an IT consultant I encounter many technical experts, and am a bit of one myself in some rather abstruse areas.  A common frustration among these experts is that expertise does not always grant them authority, as one would expect in a meritorious modern corporate society.  Instead, contrarily, they find that corporate authority tends to confer expertise.  The managerial classes inside the corporations we work with are able to dictate technical directions not because they know about these technologies, but rather simply because they have the authority to do so.

In part this is simply how the system works.  Expertise and authority go together, but not in the ways one would expect.  In the corporate world, authority granted through expertise in one area, say managerial or financial expertise and a track record of success, grants additional and possibly unjustified acknowledgment of expertise in unrelated fields.

Another reason, however, must be due to the incommunicability of IT expertise.  The field is complicated and its practitioners are not generally known for their communication abilities.  Whereas the spooks of the intelligence world are not allowed to communicate their detailed knowledge to the layman, the IT professional is simply unable to.  IT professionals speak “geek talk,” while business professionals speak corporate speak, and translators between these two dialects are few and far between.  Philosophically, however, such translations and transitions are possible, and the people who can do it make excellent careers for themselves.

What happens, however, when the whole notion of expertise is called into question.  As Stanley Rosen once said of Nietzsche, what happens when the esoteric becomes exoteric, and what we all know about our own failings and shortcomings as “experts” becomes public knowledge?

Such a thing seems to be happening now with the world economic crisis (I’m waiting for an expert to come along with a better moniker for this downward spiral we seem to all be going through, but for the moment “WEC” seems to be working).  The world economic crisis seems to have occurred because people who should have known better: bankers, traders, investors and economists, never put a stop to a problem with bad debt, bad credit and bubble markets of worldwide proportions.  As I understand it, all these people knew things weren’t kosher but were hoping to take advantage of market distortions to make huge profits before bailing out at the last moment, but like the unfortunate fellow who raced James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, they all failed to jump when they were supposed to.

Yet they were the experts.  As back up we have men like Henry Paulson at the Treasury to fix these messes, and he started out sounding authoritative about what needed to be done.  We needed $700 billion to fix the situation or at least to make it not so bad and the government had a plan, we were told, to do so.  However, the plan has mutated and meandered to the point that it now looks like it is being made up as we go along.  This in itself may not be such a bad thing, but is this meandering the sort of thing experts are supposed to do?

Recently the heads of the automotive industry came to Washington to ask for bailout money and, as we now all know, they didn’t have a plan for how they planned to spend it.  Is that how experts act?

After the flood, the big discussion now seems to be whether we should try to preserve our laissez-faire system or try to improve it and correct it with more regulation.  The sages of Wall Street seem to actually like this solution, which is in itself an admission that they no longer see themselves as experts or, apparently, of even being capable of managing their own affairs.  They would prefer that another authority correct their own excesses for them, since they no longer trust themselves.

But if there are no experts any longer on Wall Street, where all they had to do was look after their own interests, can we really expect to find one in Washington that will look over all of our interests?  I don’t mean to be a knee-jerk conservative on this matter, but does it make sense that when our clever people make it clear that they are not so clever or competent after all, we must look for someone that much more clever than all of them put together to fix things?  Can that level of expertise even exist?

And so I find myself fantasizing about a different America, indeed a different world, in which they get everything right that we either do wrong or don’t do at all.

The Topsy-Turvy World: Spy Versus Spy

Ian Fleming’s spy novels are often compared to John Le Carré’s.  The comparisons often find James Bond to be wanting.  In contrast to the emotional richness of Le Carré’s internally conflicted heroes, Bond is often presented by his critics as a cardboard cutout with an overly simplistic view of the world.  Bond fights for crown and country.  Alec Leamas and George Smiley, on the other hand, realize that things are much more complicated than that.  Fleming presented a 50’s version of the world where we all had just left off making the world safe for democracy, and still naively saw the cold war in black and white terms.  Le Carré, on the other hand, by drawing attention to the moral ambiguity at the heart of our conflict with the Soviets, turns James Bond on his head.

Or does he?  Written in 1953, ten years before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel Casino Royale includes this surprising piece of introspection from 007:

“Well, in the last few years I’ve killed two villians.  The first was in New York — a Japanese cipher expert cracking our codes on the thirty-sixth floor of the RCA building in the Rockefeller centre…. It was a pretty sound job.  Nice and clean too.  Three hundred yards away.  No personal contact.  The next time in Stockholm wasn’t so pretty.  I had to kill a Norwegian who was doubling against us for the Germans…. For various reasons it had to be an absolutely silent job.  I chose the bedroom of his flat and a knife.  And, well, he just didn’t die very quickly.

“For those two jobs I was awarded a Double O number in the Service.  Felt pretty clever and got a reputation for being good and tough.  A Double O number in our Service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.

“Now,” he looked up again at Mathis, “that’s all very fine.  The hero kills two villians, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond and the villain Bond knows he isn’t a vilain at all, you see the other side of the medal.  The villains and heroes get all mixed up.

“Of course,” he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, “patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date.  Today we are fighting Communism.  Okay.  If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that.  History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”

Mathis stared at him aghast.  Then he tapped his head and put a calming hand on Bond’s arm.

“You mean to say that this precious Le Chiffre who did his best to turn you into a eunuch doesn’t qualify as a villain?” he asked…. “And what about SMERSH?  I can tell you I don’t like the idea of these chaps running around France killing anyone they feel has been a traitor to their precious political system.  You’re a bloody anarchist.”

He threw his arms in the air and let them fall helplessly to his sides.

Bond laughed.

“All right,” he said.  “Take our friend Le Chiffre.  It’s simple enough to say he was an evil man, at least it’s simple enough for me because he did evil things to me.  If he was here now, I wouldn’t hesitate to kill him, but out of personal revenge and not, I’m afraid, for some high moral reason or for the sake of my country.”

He looked up at Mathis to see how bored he was getting with these introspective refinements of what, to Mathis, was a simple question of duty.

Mathis smiled back at him.


Le Carré attempts to preserve us from full surrender to the topsy-turvy world by making it asymptotic to ourselves.  it is a point of evil, or the transvaluation of all morals, that his heroes are always approaching but also always stay just to this side of.  In this way, the Cold War becomes a metaphor for life itself.

Fleming’s hero actually goes beyond this point, in the very first 007 novel, and comes out the other side.  The lack of moral ambiguity for which Bond is so frequently criticized is not due to the fact that he doesn’t see it. Rather he sees it and surpasses it.

In order to keep Bond out of this topsy-turvy world, where good is evil and evil good, Fleming is obliged to provide his hero with a series of sufficiently evil villains.  First there was SMERSH, the Soviet counterintelligence and murder agency whose job it was to keep the people of the Eastern Block in line through intimidation and fear.  After a time, this was in turn replaced by SPECTRE, a world-wide terrorist organization bent on world domination (perhaps an example of art anticipating life).

Le Carré similarly requires the latticework of the Cold War in order to sustain his aesthetic-moral structure, and it is telling that following the collapse of the Soviet empire, his novels have become more simple David versus Goliath narratives with clear good guys (whistleblowers) and clear bad guys (international corporations) — in a sense, more like the traditional Bond narrative.


“So” continued Bond, warming to his argument, “Le Chiffre was serving a wonderful purpose, a really vital purpose, perhaps the best and the highest purpose of all.  By his evil existence, which foolishly I have helped to destroy, he was creating a norm of badness by which, and by which alone, an opposite norm of goodness could exist.  We were privileged, in our short knowledge of him, to see and estimate his wickedness and we emerge from the acquaintanceship better and more virtuous men.”

“Bravo,” said Mathis. “I’m proud of you.  You ought to be tortured every day…. That was enjoyable, my dear James.  you really ought to go on the halls.  Now about that little problem of yours, this business of not knowing good men from bad men and villains from heroes, and so forth.  It is, of course, a difficult problem in the abstract.  The secret lies in personal experience, whether you’re a Chinaman or an Englishman.”

He paused at the door.

“You admit that Le Chiffre did you personal evil and that you would kill him if he appeared in front of you now?

“Well, when you get back to London you will find there are other Le Chiffres seeking to destroy you and your friends and your country.  M will tell you about them.  And now that you have seen a really evil man, you will know how evil they can be and you will go after them to destroy them in order to protect yourself and the people you love.   you won’t wait to argue about it.  You know what they look like now and what they can do to people.  You may be a bit more choosy about the jobs you take on.  You may want to be certain that the target really is black, but there are plenty of really black targets around.  There’s still penty for you to do.  And you’ll do it….”

Mathis opened the door and stopped on the threshold.

“Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James.  They are easier to fight for than principles.”

The Topsy-Turvy World: Witches and Spies

In Part II, Question 2 of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), the 15th century witch hunter’s manual, the authors ask:

Is it lawful to remove witchcraft by means of further witchcraft, or by any other forbidden means?

 This is a variation on the question concerning means and ends, but with a poetic twist.  In the standard form of the question, we evaluate the two terms and try to determine if the good we seek to accomplish is greater than, or less than, the evil that is required to accomplish it, and if the answer is yes, then we call these means a necessary evil.  In the form posed by the Malleus Maleficarum, there is a more direct relationship between the means to be used and the evil to be overcome.  They are neither greater nor less than, but are in fact identical to the evil to be overcome.

In metaphysical jurisprudence, Dante calls this relationship between the crime and the punishment  contrapasso, or the counter-suffering that a soul suffers for the sins he committed in life.  Through this principle, people in sinning choose their own meet punishment in the afterlife, and the cosmic order is maintained.  Thus, Paolo and Francesca, who were caught up in each other’s lust in life, are caught up in in an eternal whirlwind in the afterlife, and the epicureans, who insist that the soul is permanently tied to the body, are forced to drag their bodies around in hell.

This poetic principle which assures justice with regard to punishment, because it makes the punishment always fit the crime, has a jarring effect when applied to practical reasoning and police work, which occur before any punishment is necessary.  By using the means of the enemy we seek to overcome, we somehow perpetuate the evil that we seek to destroy.  Cosmically, this evil is somehow transferred to us.  It is a standard trope of science fiction that when we use the tools of our enemy, we become no better than our enemy. 

There is a direct relationship between the witch-hunting of the 15th century, and the cold war of the 20th.  Not only were we similarly caught in a general fear about an enemy that we were not certain we could overcome, but the same temptations about the tools to be used were raised by the nature of the conflict.  Deviousness and ruthlessness, an absence of morality, are the greatest strengths of the enemy.  To what extent must we suspend our own morality in order to defeat this enemy?  And having done so, to what extent are we still the good guys.

In the 15th century, the advice to witch-hunters was to not use the tools of the witches.  In the Malleus Maleficarum, this is stated as an absolute prohibition, with the explanation that any attempt to use magic will either directly call upon the aid of demons, or will open the practitioner of such means up to the influence of the demons.

In the 20th century, we were more accommodating toward the Devil.  In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre places the following words in the mouth of Control, the head of the Britain’s Secret Service, who is explaining to the hero, Alec Leamas, why he must go on just one more mission:


“Thus we do disagreeable things, but we are defensive.  That, I think, is still fair.  We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.  Is that too romantic?  Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things”; he grinned like a schoolboy.  “And in weighing up the moralities, we rather go in for dishonest comparisons; after all, you can’t compare the ideals of one side with the methods of the other, can you, now?”

Leamas was lost.  He’d heard the man talked a lot of drivel before getting the knife in, but he’d never heard anything like this before.

“I mean you’ve got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal.  I would say that since the war, our methods — ours and those of the opposition — have become much the same.  I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”  He laughed quietly to himself: “That would never do,” he said.


 But if our actions are justified because we are the good guys, at what point are we no longer able to distinguish ourselves from the bad guys and suddenly find ourselves in Hegel’s verkehrte Welt, the inverted world in which we are no longer ourselves?  This is a question that is raised with great regularity in modern politics, in world affairs, and in our daily lives.  The problems of the topsy-turvy world arise when we begin to practice a negative ethics rather than a positive one, in which we are defined much more by what we are not, rather than by what we are.

The Bond Martini


We all know that James Bond drinks his martinis “shaken, not stirred.”  In the first Bond novel by Ian Fleming, we are actually given directions for making a very large martini, which Bond invents and later dubs ‘The Vesper,’ after Vesper Lynd, the heroine of Casino Royale


Bond insisted on ordering Leiter’s Haig-and-Haig ‘on the rocks’ and then he looked carefully at the barman.

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.  Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel. Got it?’

‘Certainly, monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

‘Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.

Bond laughed. ‘When I’m … er … concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one drink to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.’

He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker. He reached for it and took a long sip.

‘Excellent,’ he said to the barman, ‘but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.’

‘Mais n’enculons pas des mouches,’ he added in an aside to the barman. The barman grinned.

‘That’s a vulgar way of saying “we won’t split hairs”,’ explained Bond.