TOC A tale of two countries Your Turn

October 27, 2009

Confectioners and costume makers may wish every country in the world celebrate Halloween, it mainly remains an American festival during which young children are introduced to blackmail, also called trick or treat. Harmless fun or so it seems until you consider the best of them grow up to be bankers bent on bonuses. Trick and treat. Scary.

Perhaps one reason Halloween cannot succeed internationally is that, besides bankers, what scares one country often looks funny in another.

James Burnett anticipated on the holiday by telling his American readers of the new census currently under way (*). Census agents, it transpires, are going door to door with a GPS enabled hand held device. As claimed by come conservative commentator, "regardless of your political affiliation, there's just something creepy about that".

What is truly scary though is that James Burnett, after poking fun of this fear, rightly concedes "the roots of the concerns are genuine, and trace back to the fundamental American conflict between a democratic government's need for information and citizens' desire for privacy."

I am the first to castigate governments for running roughshod over our privacy in the name of security but I find highly comical that Americans would worry about the census, which occurs every 10 years, when they flock to Facebook to be fleeced every day under its privacy policy du jour. No matter how detailed the census form can be, it will never compete with the million little pieces Facebook holds on its users. It is of course as easy to misrepresent as to misunderstand the nature of the danger. A particular Facebook personal profile may be totally innocuous in and by itself.

Nevertheless all Facebook records participate in what Paul Ohm calls "the database of ruin". "For almost every person on earth, there is at least one fact about them stored in a computer database that an adversary could use to blackmail, discriminate against, harass, or steal the identity of him or her" (1). This fact depends on the person, it lies buried in an undisclosed location. Yet, through integration and aggregation, no amount of de-identification can prevent this fact from coming to light at some point. Overall, the very success of Facebook turns the odds against its users.

Such threshold effects can be deeply unsettling. It is not exactly a breakthrough in social science to remark that we are the company we keep. Birds of a feather have flocked together for ever. Yet Carolyn Y. Johnson's article on MIT project 'Gaydar' shows how disruptive this truism can become when industrialized by social networks (**). As Professor Hal Abelson said when students Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree submitted what started as a term project "Oh, my God - you can actually put some computation behind that".

"Using friends in classifying people has to be treated with care", Carolyn Y. Johnson cautions through "computer scientists Lise Getoor and Elena Zheleva". But pray, when have false positives scared security agencies and advertisers, let alone hate driven stalkers?

One country which takes such disruptive social innovations very seriously is China. It is tempting to make fun of the emphasis the Chinese put on preserving harmony. More interesting is to follow James Burnett's lead in relating seemingly irrational fears to the national psyche. This approach underlays the work of François Jullien (2). In an interview with Geneviève Felten and Philippe d'Iribarne (***), this sinologue contrasts our search for truth with this preference for maintaining order. Both focus on "the way", the former to reach a goal, the latter to keep going. Embracing change, "China has thought it was imperative to preserve the balance so that everything concerned: organisms, mechanisms..., renew themselves".

To understand is not to excuse. Social regulation tends to maintain harmony at the expense of liberty, "the problem of China" according to François Jullien. Witness the pull quote for Jonathan Ansfield's report (****) on a move by the Chinese government "requiring that new [Web sites] users log on under their true identities to post comments": "officials see a boon for society and order, but others say rights are being curtailed".

Reading Kathrin Hille's analysis of the Chinese "employee file" system (*****), one is likewise entitled to conclude the Chinese state has already implemented "the database of ruin" on its citizens, "which helps it retain its absolute power over the individual". But what about the United States?

Kathrin Hille's unfortunate hero finds himself ostracized by Chinese employers because his "crucial documentation proving his cadre status [...] disappeared from his employee file". He is ruined by what the database no longer holds on him. Couldn't this happen in the West too? Doesn't the propaganda of the major social sites puts you on notice that if you cut yourself from this source of modernity, say for privacy concerns, life will become more difficult for you? Wouldn't you become invisible and therefore suspect, perhaps the carrier of a faked identity? Can "Nobody" hold a job when recruiters expect to be able to google you and employers to befriend you, weighing you up by sizing your personal network?

James Burnett ends his sober assessment by pointing out "we [Americans] like being left alone, but perhaps even more, we also like to feel we count". Unbeknownst to them, this need pushes Americans into the hands of the corporations which set up and control information networks. This check on our individualism is not the only social phenomenon to link the United States to China. Writing about western management, Stefan Stern unwittingly relays the essence of Chinese thought on preserving harmony (******), "adapt to survive". The environment being unpredictable, the advantage goes to the "more free-flowing [...] corporation" ready to develops its strategy "over a long period, on a long and winding road".

If China and the United States share more than meets the eye, could a synthesis bridge the fear for our liberty due to the disappearance of privacy and the fear for social harmony caused by the hiding of one's identity? Aren't in both societies such scares triggered by responsibility? Whether individuals avoid it in the name of freedom or established powers enforce it oppressingly for the sake of order, how can such societies endure?

True liberty and lasting harmony require social actors to accept and nurture real responsibility, ideal objective, a constant balancing act.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Night of the Census Taker, by James Burnett (Boston Globe) - October 18, 2009
  • (**) ......... Project 'Gaydar', by Carolyn Y. Johnson (Boston Globe) - September 20, 2009
  • (***) ....... Le pouvoir en Chine, by Geneviève Felten and Philippe d'Iribarne (La Jaune et La Rouge) - April, 2007
  • (****) ..... China Adds Layer of Web Surveillance With a Rule Seeking Users' Names, by Jonathan Ansfield (New York Times) - September 6, 2009
  • (*****) ... File not found, by Kathrin Hille (Financial Times) - September 5, 2009
  • (******) . Living strategy and the death of the five-year plan, by Stefan Stern (Financial Times) - October 27, 2007
  • (1) from Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization, by Paul Ohm (University of Colorado Law School) - August, 2009
  • (2) see François Jullien in the French Wikipedia, another entry which awaits an English version
October 2009
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