Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A few points concerning the movie “Anon”

with 2 comments

I recently watched the movie “Anon”, which follows a police detective working in a police system (and society in general) highly dependent on implants that capture and modify the visual* impressions of the populace—like a mixture of “built-in” smart glasses and some of my own satiric suggestions ([1]).

*I am uncertain to what degree other senses were involved.

While the movie as a whole is not that great, it demonstrates several conceivable future dangers.

Of these the possibly most noteworthy are those present in [1]—or how a state like that could come into being*: Take “smart glasses”, make it an implant, connect it to the cloud, allow the police increasingly greater access to that cloud or even the implants themselves, and a nightmare scenario could very easily manifest it self.

*The movie it self gives no (in universe) historical background; however, the speculation is fairly obvious.

Another issue touched upon repeatedly in my own writings is the low value of digital evidence: Whatever is stored*, transmitted, replayed, …, digitally can be manipulated, usually very easily, in order to give an incorrect impression. This applies not just to obvious items, e.g. entries in the access log of a server or the presence of illegal contents on a private hard-drive, but increasingly extends even to e.g. video capture**. Even the (extraordinarily naive and absolutely intolerable) assumption that law-enforcement personnel would never manipulate evidence is not enough to remedy this problem, nor is the strictest tracking*** by “chain of evidence”, because there is no guarantee that manipulations have not taken place through a third party.

*There is an availability of write-only storage that to some degree could remedy this. However, this presumes that write-only storage actually is used (which can be impractical for e.g. cost reasons and the inability to re-use storage); does not help against manipulations during retrieval of the data; and can be circumvented by simply copying the one write-only storage unit to an identical unit, making only the wanted modifications, and then proclaiming the modified copy to be the original.

**To achieve sufficiently high-quality manipulations or forgeries today is rarely practical. However, at the rate CGI has advanced over the years, we will eventually (likely: soon) reach a point where anyone with even a semi-powerful enemy could be at risk. (Whether we ever reach a state where a single skilled individual can achieve this with at most a few hours work, as implied in the movie, I leave unstated. However, given enough time, that too might be the case.)

***Especially since such tracking would almost certainly be largely digital…

Anonymity and privacy, even outside police work, is another important theme (as might be surmised from the title): Walking along a street and being able to see the names, occupations, whatnot of the other pedestrians might be interesting and useful—but the same applies in reverse. I, myself, certainly would not be comfortable with that. Extrapolate it a bit further, and assume that (drawing on the current U.S.) someone who once was caught peeing in the park has a “sex offender” sign displayed over his head, or that (drawing on Nazi-Germany) Jews, homosexuals, whatnot come with their own warning signs. What if a direct connection with e.g. a Facebook account is made, and passers-by can extract almost arbitrary information, e.g relationship status, at will? Recall e.g. a recent assault over a mistaken identity; or note how easy it is for someone rooting for the wrong team or supporting the wrong party to be beaten up, if encountering the wrong crowd—or consider how information on income can affect the risk of being robbed or pick-pocketed.

From another perspective, consider the ability to replay the capture of previous sights—including e.g. love making. We could argue that that which we have once seen should be ours to see again—and I would mostly agree. However, it is easy to find special cases where this is highly disputable, e.g. when someone accidentally walks in on someone else who is having sex or otherwise being naked: It would not be unreasonable for the observed party to demand a deletion. Certainly, a kept recording might give far greater opportunity of observing details than the original (typically) brief flash. Similarly, there is a wide consensus that filming sex with a partner without consent is unacceptable—but what happens when everyone has a built-in camera? To boot, others can wish for even stricter criteria—I have, e.g., seen the opinion (but disagree) that even consensually filmed material must be destroyed after a break-up or that voluntarily given intimate images must be returned.

These problems are by no means limited to physical acts and nakedness: Consider e.g. the ban on cameras (including on cell-phones and notebooks) in many offices and factories. Or consider someone having a private conversation on which a third-party can now far more easily listen in*.

*An early scene showed even the near-inaudible dialogue of some passers-by being translated directly to text.

Alternatively, consider the invasion of privacy implied by a spouse’s or parent’s request to see a certain section of recording (“Where were you last night?!?”)*: Show it and lose privacy; do not show it and the worst will be suspected. (A similar situation is discussed in a text on lies under oath.) An interesting twist is provided by two (real life) parents who are repeatedly in the news for trying to get access to a deceased daughter’s Facebook account: What if this scenario is replaced by parents/spouses/children/whatnot who gain access to their deceased children’s/spouses’/parents’/whatnot implant data, including extensive recordings?

*It is my strong personal belief that even children relative their parents and spouses relative each other have a right to a considerably degree of privacy; however, even those who do not (e.g. an over-protective parent or a wife who fails to understand that the members of a couple are still different people) must realize that there can be areas where a legitimate need for such privacy can exist: Not everything that the one party wants to keep secret is necessarily harmful to the other, morally wrong, or susceptible to the (pseudo-)argument “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Consider e.g. a husband giving a female friend some help strictly for reasons of friendship, and a wife who has a history of jumping to (incorrect) conclusions about cheating.

Then again, we have anonymity (respectively lack thereof) in the frame of police work. I have earlier (notably in [2]) objected to e.g. computer searches for reasons like the presence of highly personal material and private information, as well as the risk that material that in theory would only be accessed by the police might leak out. What if the information collected includes basically everything seen or done by someone? (Including sex acts, intimate conversations, confidential business meetings, …)

Then there is the issue of hacking and security: Not only does this provide yet another channel through which private information can leak, but it also adds the risk of damaging interventions. For instance, the movie showed examples of visual input being sufficiently manipulated, in real time, that the victim could not rely on his eye sight. With this level of technology, it would be easy to e.g. have someone just walk into oncoming traffic. However, even with abilities more realistic by today’s standards, great harm can be caused, e.g. by having textual information altered to imply that another party is sleeping with the own spouse. Looking at self-driving cars, with similar vulnerabilities and a greater current realism, we could have a hostile entity manipulate a car into taking actions that lead to a car crash, a run-over pedestrian, or some other calamity. (See also e.g. [3].)

On the other hand, if external access is technically and legally sufficiently limited, there can be a great upside to some of the technologies. Consider e.g. re-running a business meeting or a lecture to refresh a failing memory; re-living an enjoyable moment; or (most enticing to me) re-visiting a portion of prior life to have another look at how things were back then or how one has developed or not developed, what lessons can be drawn and what could have been done differently, etc.

As an aside, it is depressing that while we live in a time when privacy and anonymity are more urgent than ever before (for the simple reason that they are so much easier to violate), legislation and other “government behavior” shows a broad trend towards weakening both. The fear of terrorism and organized crime makes this partially understandable; but not only do the “big bads” have far greater means to circumvent such legislation than the average citizen, the measures are often obviously intended against crimes of any kind. Both these factors point strongly towards the damage done being greater than the benefits gained. What we need is the reverse trend—and this not only with regard to the government, but also to strengthen protection against e.g. profile-building private enterprises, for instance by making it possible to order even physical to-be-delivered goods (close to) anonymously and by removing antiquated laws like the German requirement for a hotel guest to register with full and real name and address.

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 30, 2018 at 12:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. […] a recent discussion of the movie “Anon”, I noted, regarding the uselessness of digital evidence, “Whatever is stored […] can be […]

  2. […] as I discuss in e.g. a call for the opposite. (Other texts of relevance include [1], [2], [3].) I note in particular, that the surveillance in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was ultimately not […]


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