Vol. 27 No. 1 (January 2017) pp. 7-10
THE FUTURE OF VIOLENCE—ROBOTS AND GERMS, HACKERS AND DRONES: CONFRONTING THE NEW AGE OF THREAT, by Benjamin Wittes and Gabriella Blum. 2016. Gloucestershire, UK: Amberley Press. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-4456-5593-2.
Reviewed by Mark Rush, Center for International Education. Washington and Lee University. Email: email@example.com.
Wittes and Blum have written an important work that forces scholars to reconsider the scope and definition of privacy, individual rights and governmental powers in an era in which the expansion of technology and the scope of internet have radically altered these notions. Despite seemingly ancient visions of the internet as a place in which individuals would be free, potentially anonymous actors, the web has instead, become a much different place.
The book’s subtitle speaks to the breadth of its coverage. Essentially, technological and scientific advancements have now “democratized” access to weapons of mass hysteria if not mass destruction. While the immediate impact of a cyberattack may not seem to compare to that of a nuclear bomb, its real impact (in terms of the number of people it affects and the possible cost of responding to or defending against such an attack) does compare.
But, technology has had a truly democratizing impact as well. Echoing Thomas Friedman’s (2005) description of how the growth of technology, specifically democratized access to the global economy, Wittes and Blum describe what might be version 4.0 of Friedman’s analysis. Democratization of access to technology has a dark side. On the one hand, it brought the developing world (particularly India and China) onto the global economic stage. On the other, [*8] in the same way that the expansion and democratization of the world economy created a scenario for almost unstoppable, hysteria-driven runs on currencies in global markets, it also empowers individuals to threaten others (individually or collectively) with virtual anonymity if not impunity.
The strength of Wittes and Blum’s analysis is that it presents the many threats in vivid detail. It falters somewhat when discussing potential solutions to (or, at least, ways to manage) the threats they describe. This is a minor quibble because the trajectory of technological development is still unfolding. The same breakthroughs that empower individuals also enable governments, corporations, and those same individuals to engage in truly frightening levels of cybersurveillance. So, it is not yet clear whether the phenomenon Wittes and Blum describe will lead to a chaotic, dangerous, democratized world, one with levels of surveillance that Orwell could not imagine, or one in which the forces of surveillance and technological democratization establish a new equilibrium point.
The one takeaway from THE FUTURE OF VIOLENCE is that privacy and privacy rights can no longer be conceived in terms of Brandeis and Warren’s “right to be left alone.” Unless one can manage to disengage completely from “the grid” and shield oneself from the prying eyes of technologically empowered voyeurs, hackers or children with drones, the “right” to be left alone will be much more difficult to enjoy.
Wittes and Blum begin with discussions of how the anthrax scare of 2001 could easily be recreated and vastly expanded using drones, how Luis Mijangos hacked computers to blackmail his victims into performing sex acts online, and how Alexander Litvinenko (who was killed as a result of being fed polonium surreptitiously) could now be killed by a “bite” from a microscopic drone (pp. 1-5).
On the one hand, individuals are now subject to potentially unending and pervasive surveillance because one can never completely erase one’s tracks after surfing (or simply, exploring) the web. There is no delete button. On the other, individuals are subject to infinite threats from hackers, stalkers and other internet denizens. While perpetrators of such threats are, in theory, trackable and identifiable, their capacity to hide, transform or proliferate on the internet makes tracking such malefactors extremely expensive, if not virtually impossible.
Thus, Wittes and Blum describe what is, essentially, an age-old challenge for legal and political scholars: how can we construct laws that will empower the government to protect our rights while ensuring that the government cannot threaten them? Concepts such as “checks and balances” do not work as well in the virtual world as they do in the terrestrial one because “privacy” does not operate/exist in the same way.
In the terrestrial world, individuals can control “access to their data” in ways that simply are not possible on the web. Certainly, in an age when surveillance cameras are proliferating and it is virtually impossible to exist without at least an ATM card unless one has an infinite supply of cash, this has become more difficult.
Once one enters the web, borders disappear because one must enter it through an IP address that broadcasts one’s identity and actions. Granted, given the size and growth of the web, the growing quantity of digital data that is generated by web users, and technological advances that enable one to hide from or obscure detection, one can still count on a certain degree of anonymity because any one user remains a needle in a virtual haystack of data that grows with incredible speed. Unless one were the object of a search designed to hunt down a particular user, one’s presence on the web is no more obvious than the shouts of one spectator in a stadium full of tens of thousands of fans. But, if one were the object of a discrete search, on the web, it is theoretically possible to know not only the equivalent of the seat an ticket number one purchased to attend that virtual ballgame, but also what one shouted and consumed while there.
Exposure on the web undermines notions such as “reasonable expectations of privacy” that are fundamental principles of constitutional law and fundamental rights. In response, courts have placed limits on the use of technology to track and collect evidence from individuals (see, e.g., U.S. V. JONES) because the technology breaches those reasonable expectations. But, courts and legislatures thus far remain divided if not befuddled when it comes to defining terms such as privacy clearly for the purposes of the digital age. On the web, one essentially broadcasts data and information with every virtual step. In order to obscure this data, it is necessary to take measures to hide tracks, scramble data and mask identity. Privacy, in this regard, has transformed from a right that one can assume to a commodity that individuals must work to maintain and preserve. This bears a cost that will certainly lend a veneer of inequality to the exercise of privacy rights.
The principal surveillance threat comes not from the government (“big brother”) but from the millions of neighbors on the web (“little brother”) who can track and stalk us. Wittes and Blum document these threats in the first half of their book. They offer a parade of horrible examples of individuals who have used or could use the web to perpetrate individual or mass acts of terror ranging from the release of anthrax to using drones to stalk your neighbors.
Where do we turn to seek protection from or redress against such individuals? It would seem that there is no punishment commensurate with the damage that they can do via the web. To track them down would require ensuring that the government has virtually unlimited surveillance power in order to find them amidst the growing noise and data on the web. But, to give the government such power would be essentially to forsake any pretense of an expectation of privacy. To track down the virtual predator next door, the government must be able to see what the neighbors are up to as well.
Thus, Brandeis and Warren’s “right to be left alone” is much harder to protect in a virtual world where one cannot avoid calling attention to one’s self. Ironically, the principal threat to one’s privacy in Brandeis and Warren’s article is not the government but the ancient forerunners of [*9] today’s hackers: private individuals or organizations (i.e. the press) with surveillance power. In Brandeis and Warren’s vision, the government protected the common good and had the power necessary to do so. In the virtual world, governmental power would have to expand so far beyond what Brandeis and Warren imagined (particularly, Brandeis in OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY) that it would look as an ominous threat to all rights.
In discussing possible ways to manage the threats posed by science and technology, Wittes and Blum offer speculative hopes at best. Governments might look, for example, to reallocate and then regulate the risks posed by the web. Thus, in the same way that government may hold bartenders liable for serving alcohol to drivers who become drunk in their establishment, so too could it hold software makers and platform builders liable for damage done by those who use them to perpetrate harm.
In theory, these seem like a logical comparison. But, I think, the scalability of the comparison poses troublesome implications. Customers access particular bars one at a time. There are limits to how many drunks a bartender can fuel. Similarly, governments can hold biotech suppliers liable for not doing background checks on those who order DNA and whatnot in order to create pathogens or viruses.
Such measures, however, coop private actors into becoming agents for a police state. Innocents will certainly rebel against such surveillance in the same way they would rebel against being subject to mass data collection that scoops up their digital tracks.
Conceptually, the enlistment of intermediaries to enforce security provisions and other aspects of the law appeals to the extent that the digital world can be compared to a marketplace. The U.S. government used the Commerce Clause to force private businesses to end segregationist practices. Enlisting private entities to police the web by enacting laws that make these entities liable would seem to parallel this practice.
But, the nature and scope of the damage or threat that we look to regulate are radically different. Despite government regulations, it would surprise no one to discover somewhere that a restaurant is operated by a racist or that organized bible reading is taking place on an isolated school bus. While the damage done by such events is regrettable, its scope is minimal. Holding an internet provider responsible for a cyberattack launched by a subscriber or a pharmaceutical company liable for sending material that enabled an anthrax attack compares to shutting the gate after the herd of wild horses has left the barn and run roughshod over crops, etc. The damage will have been done and its scope will render adequate, effective compensatory damage almost unimaginable. It is difficult enough to track transactions in the sale of firearms.
Wittes and Blum address these issues from a global perspective as well. In theory, if the web can be broken up into discrete, nationally-policeable chunks, then harmed individuals can appeal to national courts to seek redress for damages perpetrated by individuals who commit cybercrimes or nefarious entities that enable perpetrators by failing to maintain adequate security procedures.
But, one we place a victim in one country, the perpetrator in another and, perhaps, the server or platform operator in a third, all the troubles associated with international cooperation manifest themselves. If nations bicker about climate control, extradition, human trafficking and other treaties, it is incongruous to assume that they won’t do so about treaties dealing with cybercrimes and cybersecurity.
Technology may advance. But, human nature and politics remain consistent.
Overall, Wittes and Blum do an impressive job of outlining and discussing the many aspects of a digitized world that render, if you will, 20th century concepts of privacy, security, government powers and international law inadequate to the task of addressing the threats posed by and to individuals as a result of the scope and power of the web. THE FUTURE OF VIOLENCE is an important, well-written and enjoyable overview of the challenges to [*10] governance and rights emanating from the democratizing impact of science and technology.
Brandeis, Louis. 1914. OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY AND HOW THE BANKERS USE IT. New York: Stokes.
Friedman, Thomas. 2005. THE WORLD IS FLAT 3.0. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Warren, Samuel D. and Louis D. Brandeis. 1890. “The Right to Privacy.” 4 HARVARD LAW REVIEW 193 - 220.
UNITED STATES V. JONES. 132 S. Ct. 945. (2012)
© Copyright 2017 by author, Mark Rush.