Lab NotesNotesReflections

Personal Lessons Learned from the November 29, 1963 Plane Crash

Very strong and vivid childhood memories.

This deadly crash took place on a Friday night, only a few miles from the factory where my dad worked. One of his colleagues was to be on that plane, but had suddenly changed his mind in the boarding queue.

Plane crash crater site

The next morning, Radio-Canada canceled the broadcast of Am-stram-gram children show as the topic of that week’s episode was aviation.

The following Friday, my father came home driving the prototype of a new model of airport fire truck of which he oversaw the design and construction. I was nine years old and had a brand new shiny red machine fireman at home only a week after a dramatic event where it could have served.

This truck was destroyed on test tracks in order to learn what were the ultimate capabilities and limits of the machine. The latest test was to run the truck through woodland similar to the one where the DC-8 crashed. When the truck gave up, its frame was crooked and the shiny red paint had been completely torn off from its flanks.

It is through many similar experiences that I learned very young that:

  • first, what is ultimately at stake with any technology is human life itself; and
  • secondly, the quest for knowledge almost always involves some form or another of destruction.
ExperimentsInformation & LawLab NotesNotesReflections

Abandoning the concept (and illustration) of “information collection” for that of “production”

In its original 1990 version, the theory of interpersonal information processes refers to collection as one of information’s logical phases. The term collection is borrowed from protection of personal information law, which itself borrowed it from the lexicon of public and private bureaucracies. However, the word collection (action to pick a pre-existing object) masks the presence of a production of new informational artifacts. The result is that several implications are veiled, particularly those related to the intellectual property of the new information objects and to their pragmatic dimension.

The question then is: should collection really be considered as a logical phase of information? Or is it the chosen term that is inadequate? (more…)

Field RemarksInformation & LawLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

Self-managing our digital identity, digital assets and intellectual property in case of death or incapacity

ObservationsNow a grandfather, I had to revise my will and mandate in case of incapacity. Except that this time, I found out that I must ask my potential agents and testamentary executors to deal with the ubiquity of digital media. That does complicate their task.

Only a few years ago, one could easily find the documents of an incapacitated or deceased person. It was enough to systematically round the various places where the person lived and worked. The nature of the documents generally jumped in the eyes: contracts, invoices, private correspondence, books, recordings, professional documents, etc. In the absence of specific instructions, one could apply certain customs: such as delivering private correspondence items to their authors, distribution of content libraries, records shelves, photo albums or collections to interested close ones; retention of fiscal documents for some six years before destroying them.

Digitalization of assets

As more and more people around me, I hold less and less documents on paper or other macroscopic media. Already, most of my documents are to be found in digital forms: private correspondence, files, invoices, contracts, tax documents, banking and accounting, books, music, photos, work documentation, etc. (more…)

CommunicationsDebatesInformation & LawLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesReflections

Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: A Few Ideas for the Twenty-First Century

Text derived from my presentation

to the Citizen Forum on surveillance of communications

organized by the Quebec caucus of the New Democratic Party

Montreal, Notman House, Thursday, November 3, 2011

Regardless of the fate of the bill named “Lawful Access”, the information society will continue to develop. Then again, an information society is necessarily a surveillance society. Hence the question: what role the parliaments, governments and civil society should play to not only preserve freedoms and democracy, but to enhance them?

Here I propose – in quick rough strokes due to the short time available – some ideas for reference in regard to challenges the twenty-first century presents to us.

Social Life and Surveillance

Idea # 1: Surveillance is an integral component of all social life.

This is true of all human societies, likewise of many animal societies, and even vegetal ones.

Idea # 2: Surveillance takes many forms with very different, even opposite consequences.

I am a grandfather. Obviously I watched my children and grandchild. However, the forms that such surveillance takes can lead children to more and more autonomy, or, conversely, to dependence and submission.

That is why, idea # 3: The concepts proposed by author Ivan Illich of autonomy versus heteronomy, conviviality and counterproductivity are useful to this discussion.

These concepts can be applied, for example, to a convivial urban neighborhood that combines the functions of housing, labor, commerce and recreation. Such an area appears safe because its residents, workers, passersby and idle bystanders spontaneously and freely offer themselves mutual, continuous, autonomous surveillance.

Conversely, an unconvivial single function neighborhood that is deserted during the night or day appears to generate insecurity. No expensive police, guards or electronic surveillance will succeed to produce real security. And such surveillance is likely to increase heteronomous forms of power over individuals and community.

Hence, idea # 4: It is important to consider the complex interrelationships between environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions, on the one hand, and the forms of surveillance that these structures permit or not as well as their effects, on the other hand.

Assessment Criteria

And therefore, idea # 5: Respect for freedom is a necessary, but totally insufficient assessment criteria (thus ineffective alone).

In addition, idea # 6 (stated earlier): The information society is necessarily a society where surveillance is becoming widespread, increasing in power and scope, and is being democratized.

Let us illustrate this with a surveillance activity which, unlike the “Lawful Access” bill on the State’s power over private communications, is conducted by private actors on public communications, namely: the high-frequency stock transactions which constitute some 60% of the volume of North American exchanges. This surveillance involves the use of computers that, each microsecond, monitor and analyze all transactions around the planet. This surveillance allows the same computer to purchase securities at one instant and resale them a few seconds later at a profit. The speeds of surveillance, analysis and decision making are so great that human operators can only control possible failure occurrences. Such as those that caused the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010 when these automatic systems suddenly made the Dow Jones Index to plunge several hundred points within a few minutes.

Such capabilities are becoming more democratic. Let’s remember that today a lower end smartphone is already more powerful than these big central computer that, in the sixties, most thought only States could afford. That the customers of data mining software, indispensable to produce results from digital surveillance, are roughly divided into four areas: academic (teaching and research), business (marketing, R & D), police and military intelligence, and we call civil society (various organizations and individuals). That information items on the behavior of individuals and organizations have never been produced in such large numbers or have never been more accessible (just take all the wealth of personal information items disseminated via social media).

Some surveillance activities can easily be described as harmful, such as surveillance of the private communications of citizens or of their legitimate political activities. Other surveillance activities can easily be described as beneficial, such as those about who funds political parties and about who does what lobbying with which decision makers.

However, idea # 7: The majority of the surveillance activities that will emerge will not be so easily assessed: understanding their nature and their effects will require deliberations.

So idea # 8: Drawing on a proposition from economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, we could state that: all surveillance should be subjected to the application of the principles of freedom, but that any surveillance involving some exercise of social power should also be subjected to the principles of democracy.

These principles are to be applied, no matter the public or private nature of the actions being monitored; or the state, commercial or civilian identity of those conducting the surveillance.

Logically, the same principles should also apply to the decision making on environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions that determine the forms surveillance may or may not take. Indeed, various social movements express the same demand, whether about shale gas extraction or high finance business: one’s obligation to subject to the action of another called for one’s right to know and right to have one’s say.

As a Preliminary Conclusion

Idea # 9: Such radical democratization calls for deep legal, parliamentary and political transformations from the local to the international levels.

Such changes could indeed be facilitated by possible information societies’ developments.

However, idea # 10: The exact forms that these changes should take remains yet to be defined.

Here, our situation is similar to those of different protests movements (such as Occupy Wall Street) that clearly identifies how current practices are unacceptable without being able to define what should be the alternatives. However, it is as equally urgent to conceive concrete solutions. Let us illustrate with two cases.

Electronic payment

The first case is about privatization of a decision of a public nature. It is the introduction in North America of smart banking cards that raise issues of individual and societal surveillance. Electronic payment is a “radical monopoly” to use another concept from Ivan Illich: if citizens retain the choice of the financial institution that will provide the banking card, there is only one electronic payment system that is imposed on all financial institutions and to all their customers on a given territory.

However, the choice of a new microprocessor based payment system is not trivial. This is because there are dozens of concepts for implementing this technology that are quite different in terms of individual surveillance. Some concepts can make electronic payments as anonymous as the use of paper money. For example, the financial institution knows by the end of the day that it should debit the account of such customer to such total amount, but remains unable to connect this with the various suppliers where the customer has spent money. At the other end of the spectrum, there are concepts that provide the financial institution with a wealth of information about who has purchased what from whom precisely at what time and how much. The choice between one type of concept and another has little to do with technical or budgetary constraints. It is in practice a political decision on the level of surveillance that financial institutions may or may not carry on the activities of their clients. But it is not elected parliaments that decide. Rather, parliaments have left the decision to private clubs of financial institutions (in Canada, to the Canadian Payments Association).

But it’s not just the surveillance of individual clients that is at issue. The generalization of electronic payments offers financial institutions a breathtaking real-time view of economic activities and situations of entire societies. This truly represents a strategic advantage in times of economic turmoil. Especially when compared to the situation of governments, media and civil society who discuss measures that will have some impact only several months into the future on the basis of statistics reflecting situations often four months old in the past. Why only financial institutions could have as up to date data?

In one individual surveillance as in societal surveillance, the democratic principle should apply – in addition to that of freedom – with respect to decisions about social powers of such magnitude. Should parliaments recover the power to legislate publically on these matters? Or should we try to democratize the work of clubs such as the Canadian Association of payment? Or follow a different model of democratic decision making?

Passports

The second case is about internationalization of a public decision. This is about passports used to monitor border crossings of citizens, and often their movements within these boundaries. Design standards of electronic and biometric components of passports are taken in international forums, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by senior public servants of the Member States surrounded by lobbyists of the airline and surveillance technologies industries. National parliaments often only have the choice to endorse or not the standards already established elsewhere.

Again, we must find a way to preserve the principle of democracy against such technocratic fait accompli through international bodies. Should parliaments or governments publicly pre-debate options to be offered in international forums? Should we engage a democratization of discussions in international forums to allow a real voice to citizens to be affected by decisions? Or a combination of both? Or another model?

These are the types of changes, needing to be outlined, that I propose to explore with you during the following discussion.

CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

For a Comprehensive Citizen Appropriation of Information and its Technologies

Written adaptation of a lecture given at a dinner for the 10th anniversary of Communautique on January 26, 2010 in Montreal.

Video of the conference (in French)

tablette cuneiformeI was asked to address the importance that information and communications technologies have taken over the last decade and will have in the foreseeable future. This from the point of view of citizens. I will do this exercise through the use of the concept of social appropriation, which is the process by which people integrate innovations into their lives to empower themselves, adapting and even hijacking them from their initial control or purposes to fit their needs and interests.

History shows that literacy can be a necessary condition for democracy. However, the fact that population is highly literate does not necessarily mean that it will live in a free and democratic society. Many well educated populations have lived at one time or another, under authoritarian or dictatorial, even totalitarian regime.

Similarly, one could argue that the fact that a population knows how to use technical devices does not mean that it control how technologies organize the relationships between citizens. Access to tools and skill development are necessary but not sufficient conditions for such mastery.

Let’s illustrate this assertion with some examples of devices currently deployed.

Body scanners
Earlier this January, the Federal Transport Minister, John Baird, announced the acquisition and installation of 44 body scanners in Canadian airports with a price tag of a quarter of a million piece. Let’s put aside for a moment the legitimate debates about the effectiveness, real or symbolic, of these devices or about their potential health harmfulness. In less than two months, we, Canadian citizens, will have the freedom to choose: either to be patted down with hands or to be patted down with eyes.

But is this the only choice offered by information technologies and digital imaging?

A colleague forwarded me the press file of all articles published following the announcement. There is hardly anyone who mentioned the fact that this purchase had been ordered without bidding, nor that we could have acquire software, to avoid full naked exposure: either by only signaling dubious spots or by projecting the exact image of the surface of the body of the person on a standard dummy (using morphing technique). The result of such an acquisition would have offered a very different choice between: either to be patted down with hands, or, simply to let electronically detection of the presence of objects on us.

Different types of body scanners

Apparently, no Member of Parliament has spoken of these alternatives. No journalist. No organization of citizens, consumers or human rights advocacy. Not even the official comment of the Commissioner of Canada’s privacy.

Maybe Minister Baird himself is unaware of the existence of these alternatives!

Yet as good digital citizens, many of us know how to use a digital camera and image processing software, how to find the minister’s press release on the Web, how to see his press briefing on our computer or telephone, and how to discuss that news in blogs or on Twitter. We do know technology!

Smart bank cards
Second example: Since 2008, Canadian financial institutions deploy their smart banking cards. No minister or MP, no consumer association or other organization of civil society, no media has provoked public debate on the model of payment system that could be supported by the addition of a microprocessor in customers, debit and credit cards.

Yet, since the invention of the so-called “smart” microprocessor card, hundreds of different ways to use it were devised. The range of available applications for banking goes from very talkative systems about every action taken by the user to other ultra-quiet ones, producing as little personal information as the use of paper money.

Different designs of smart banking cards

However, there can be only one system configuration, which de facto legislates the relationships between consumers, merchants and financial institutions.

We had choices! For example, between allowing banks to produce but very little information or, conversely, permit them to produce a lot, but by forcing them to share this valuable source of knowledge about in real time evolution of our economy.

For example, the government of Ms. Dominique Vien (Quebec’s Minister of Government Services, also a speaker at this luncheon meeting) must make difficult decisions about whether the State should keep its foot on the accelerator pedal of the economy, release that pedal a bit or rather put it on the brakes. However, several of the figures available to the government often can only describe a situation that is already four months old! That complicates decision making. Even more so because due to the same delays in production of information, we will be not able to know what have been the effects of today’s decisions before many months.

But the continued production by banks of detailed and real-time information about electronic payments (that you and I pay directly the production through our bank fees), combined with the power of today’s computers could reduce this gap for some key figures to something as short as in weeks, even days!

Yet, this public debate on the democratic choice of the quantity of information generated or not by the electronic payment systems and their possible use for the benefit not only banks but also the entire society has never been place.

But as good digital citizens, we do know how to use an ATM and how to donate to Haiti by Web transactions or by text message. We do know technology!
Which social appropriation?
This brings us back to the topic of social appropriation. Generally, we define “appropriation” as the process by which an individuals and groups incorporate an innovation in their practice and adapt it, even hijack it to fit their needs.

For 10 years, Communautique, its partners and many other organizations work for the appropriation of digital tools by citizens. They work and campaign to ensure universal access to Internet and computer. They train in the use of software, the Web, social networks and collaborative tools.

Social appropriation of tools is not enough

However, we must recognize that training in the use of tools is not enough since digital devices increasingly insinuate themselves in any object. Even in our pills …

Pills with microchip
Pharmaceutical companies are testing the use of tablets with imbedded microchip. In one experiment, the device sends a text message reminder to patients on their cell phone if they do not follow properly the doctor’s prescription.

Such a device could be configured to link patients, physicians and pharmacists in a hundred of different ways. For example, to verify if we do take our medicines. To automatically ask for new doses of our medicines to be delivered to us when our bottles are emptying. Even to call an ambulance, if we have swallowed the whole bottle at once.

The question is obviously about: who will decide on a configuration rather than another? Thus, to determine how will the relationships between patients, doctors and pharmacists be organized. And why not other relationships including also pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and the world of biomedical research.

Did not we have our say? Especially if these devices are gradually being forced into the lives of us all?

Citizen appropriation
Democracy requires that appropriation by citizens goes beyond the mere handling of tools designed by others. It requires that citizens and the components of civil society can contribute to the development of tools that compel some organization of interpersonal relationships. Democracy requires a real possibility to participate in choices affecting the organization of these interactions.

This involves not only knowledge about tools and their handling, but also (as for the scanners, bank cards and pills examples), knowledge of different information that can be produced or not and the various ways they can be used or not.

Comprehensive appropriation of information and its technologies

So, real citizen appropriation must apply to as much to information and interpersonal relationships as to the computerized tools.

Let us step further. Not only would such an appropriation would be necessary to ensure some democratic nature to the information society, but it is also necessary to the very success of the computerization of its activities!

Already, online businesses can make substantial profits and government services online be meaningful only if the largest possible number of citizens have access to the internet and knows how to use them with confidence.

Ensuring adequacy of applications
Indeed, the success of many computer products and services will also increasingly depend on the ability of citizens to discuss information, tools and interpersonal relationships. In a research I conducted on online government services, I exchanged a lot with designers about what could make a system to be dysfunctional, thus engulfing citizens in some Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory rather than help them. My aim obviously was to understand, conversely, how to ensure that computerized service works well. The conclusion is summarized in this diagram that lists the factors to be considered.

Pragmatics of information in computerized interaction

I cannot discuss here with you all these factors in detail. Suffice to state for now that, in practice, it is required not only that the organization understands very well all the dimensions of its own processes (which is already a demanding job), but it must also understand as well why and how different people – users or consumers – use differently its service. How certain categories of people appropriate themselves the service differently for what different purposes. Conversely, it is also important that citizens understand well what the ends of the service and the information they exchange with the organization so they get the results they want and provide the right useful information for this purpose.

First, a very small example. In an application as simple as a change of address service, I asked the designer: “What address the Régie d’Assurance-maladie (Medicare Board) holds on the citizens insured? The designer replied: “Clearly, the address of domicile.” This is indeed what the law says, but I rose: “Are you sure?” The designer then starts to laugh: “Actually, we have no idea.” And from there, we explored all the cases where the citizen has delivered an address other than that of their domicile: such as students who give their parents’ address as a mailing address knowing that they might often change place of residence.

Whatever laws, forms and data models, it remains that the citizens are the ones who decide whether in the “address” box, they give a home address, mailing address, an address for service or otherwise.

Now, among the range of effective means to know and understand the uses, expectations, needs and constraints of citizens is public consultation. Who better than the citizens themselves or organizations who work daily with them may indicate their different uses and understandings of a particular service?

My second example is in the the very large and complex end of the spectrum. It is the huge project for computerization of medical records that, in the foreseeable future, will cost well over a billion dollars in Quebec, beyond five billion in Canada. We have already lost tens of millions of our taxes in inadequate solutions. And in the current situation, we will still lose tens of millions more along the way. And one of the causes of these inadequacies is precisely a lack of digital literacy in our society.

Senior government officials told me they can barely match the strategic vision with the real practical needs in the field. Yet meanwhile, we develop and we implement technical solutions. The approach is ultimately a costly process of trials and errors. Often I was asked the question: “It’s clear that he should consult directly with patients and the public, but how do we do that? Already among us, professionals who work daily on this, it is difficult for us to share a common understanding of the systems.”

The democratic challenge
To develop of our ability to discuss complicated technical devices among ourselves is indeed a significant cultural challenge. A challenge that must imperatively be met. Because otherwise we will face much more serious inefficiencies in number, importance and increasing costs (just think about the dramatic deterioration experienced in the customer services of several large companies, for example). Indeed, democracy itself is at risk if we progressively abandon the decisions about the organization of relationships between citizens to engineers, technocrats or lowest bidding suppliers. Decisions more often taken abroad because of the universalization of technical products or standards to ensure international interoperability of systems.

We’re still early in the long process of computerization of societies which will gradually creep into every corner of our lives, including even under our clothes, in our wallets and in our pills. Much of the information handlings in question bear interpersonal relationships while shaping them in detail in a way that will bind all parties. The democratic mastery of this form of effective legislation makes it necessary that all of us – private citizens, community organizations, governments and companies – do develop the idea of appropriation and its practice at a more comprehensive level that encompasses the social dimensions, including the downright political ones, of technical choices.

This is, of course, far more than the challenge of a decade, or even of a generation. This is the challenge posed by a true revolution that will likely extend throughout this century. While a considerable challenge, an exciting one for sure!

Lab NotesNotesReading NotesReflections

From Michel Cartier’s Formal and Informal Groups to Personal and Impersonal Groups for PIP

Reading Michel Cartier’s Les groupes d’intérêts et les collectivités locales (Interest Groups and Local Communities)*, I came across the diagram entitled “A Society Operating by Levels” that distinguishes between:

  • individual and couple (circle representing a human head);
  • informal groups (circle filled by seven human heads);
  • formal groups (circle filled by three groups of four to six human heads interconnected with each other); and
  • society (circle representing a globe).

Michel Cartier 2002

Formal group: “Group of people who demand a better quality of life and operate from the adhesion and participation of its members.”

Informal Group: ” Familiar small group operating face to face”

Michel Cartier, 2002 100

I was particularly struck by the distinction between formal group and informal group. This led me to wonder whether there was a conceptual difference to be made in the Picture of Interpersonal Information Process (PIP) model between formal and informal group or population. (more…)

Lab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

Truthfulness of personal information as indicator of social morality?

ObservationsCan the level of accuracy of personal information items be indicative of the moral virtue of the social system in which the information is used?

This question came to me while I was doing some renovation at home while listening to Tapestry CBC One radio show. This week, Mary Hynes met Sam Harris in the wake of the publication of his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. A surprisingly short interview given that this show’s usual practice is to devote its whole hour to a single personality or subject. By listening to Harris, one understands. He certainly offers a convincing argument about the ability of science to shed light on a moral issue, or even to decide between what is right and wrong. However, the fierceness of his attacks against religions quickly annoys, thus weakening his argument.

Still, neuroscience, for example, can objectively observe through scanner and hormonal analysis that, in general, an altruistic action provides wellness to human beings who do it as those who receive it. It also observes as exactly the opposite effect with a selfish action, that it is even worse for a malevolent action. Many developments in biology, ethology and ethnology as well as psychology and sociology do offer increasingly revealing insights on various moral issues. As Harris points out, science offers here the advantage to transcend cultures, religions and moral systems because of the provable and universal nature of its conclusions.

What with the quality of personal information? The short answer is that, on one hand, science is dependent on the quality of its data and that this quality often depends on the willingness or ability of human beings to tell the truth. Still on the other hand, the level of accuracy of the provided information is measurable… scientifically.

The anecdotal answer comes from to two recent observations about the necessity…  to lie. (more…)

Field RemarksLab NotesNotesReflectionsWhat's new

Illustrations to Sell the Idea of a Device Versus to Explain its Operation

This morning I attended a meeting in the context of the development of explanatory material aiming the general public about an elaborate interpersonal information system that intensively handle personally identifiable information about individuals.

The designers first concluded that before explaining the operation of the system, it was first necessary to defend its existence and relevance. Clearly, from what has been presented, such a goal does not call the same use of image than an explanation of its operation.radio wireless tower

The explanation of how a system works requires the use of illustrations relating to information and their handling that stick strictly to the processes’ reality (as PIP can do). By contrast, explanation of the purpose of the system can proceed by evocation of a need to address or through practical scenarios. In other words, modes of illustration are then closer to those allegories and metaphors commonly used by consumer advertising and business communication. (more…)

ExperimentsLab NotesNotesReflections

Question: How to Illustrate the Notion of Opting Out?

Opting out is frequently offered in the handling of personal information. It is about the fact that a set of operations will be carried out unless the interested person expresses the desire not to permit it. The most common example is that of merchant who will contact you to offer for other products or services unless you tell him your wish that he does not go ahead. How can we illustrate these mandatory or “by default” operations as well as that possibility that the person can refuse them?

Consent to communication in DSQ – v. March 10 (more…)

ExperimentsLab NotesNotesReflections

How to Illustrate Consent or Lack of Thereof?

The consent or not to some personal information handling is an important issue. How to illustrate? Here are two figures that compare the place of consent (or lack of thereof) in two contexts: the ordinary communication of medical information between health professionals (Figure 1) and an electronic communication, as proposed by the Dossier Santé Québec system (Figure 2).

Ordinary consent to communication of medical information

Communication of medical information through DSQ (more…)

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