Expert networks: Linking expert mouths with eager ears
Image courtesy swirlingthoughts
“I can’t go outside without being photographed, I can’t visit a shop without people pinging me, at home I get all sorts of mail through the door, and now you’re telling me I can’t even have a private conversation in restaurant? Don’t we have any privacy any more?”
That was Rajib Ahmed, the Bangladesh Minister of Law, interviewed in front of the High Court in Ramna, shortly after the investigation of his corrupt practices. In Dhaka the Minister had been accused of soliciting bribes from corporate executives in return for favourable legislation – sadly, not an unusual practice anywhere in the world, and one that still crops up today.
What was unusual was how the evidence for the case was gathered; not through emails or forensic analysis, but from a necklace array recording sold through a conversation broker.
Necklaces had become an essential component of wearable computers. The first models had simple microphones and sensors, used purely to pick up their users’ voices and subvocalisations, but rapid advances and consumer demand saw array microphones being developed so conversations with multiple participants could be recorded and located in 3D audio space. Social historian Andrea Galloway from the Long Now Foundation explains what happened next:
“If you give people technology that lets them listen into and record conversations from dozens of metres away – and this technology is designed to be recording all the time – is it any surprise that people began recording and distributing all sorts of embarrassing and confidential conversations? Recordings started cropping up online just a few hours after the devices became available, and while at first people made these ‘by accident’, it wasn’t long before the disruptive nature of the technology became fully apparent.”
Rajib Ahmed was one of those people who had been recorded by accident. In an upscale restaurant in central Dhaka, a person sitting on the opposite site of the room wearing a necklace array noticed Ahmed leaving on the way out, and at home decided to see if she could isolate his conversation. When she discovered she had evidence of bribery on a massive scale, she posted it online anonymously and Ahmed was hauled in for questioning the next day; Ahmed hadn’t imagined that a quiet conversation in an expensive restaurant was possibly at risk of being recorded.
Subsequent updates (originally designed for tracking insects) saw necklace arrays being networked together with sub-meter positioning to create distributing arrays, capable of recording hundreds of conversations at once. Just a few people scattered across a conference floor or a crowded party could pick up every single word said, and with proper integration, identify every speaker.
This kind of potential surveillance was a chilling scenario for the privacy-obsessed at the time, but it got even worse. Galloway explains:
“Most conversations people heard weren’t valuable to them or to anyone they personally knew. But some entrepreneurs understood the corollary: that all conversations are valuable to someone. The conversation brokers came soon after, creating a huge market for constantly eavesdropped and streamed conversations. Unscrupulous companies could buy up conversations of confidential chats and phone calls; blogs would buy every word said by even minor celebrities. Thousands of people signed up with the brokers within days, salivating at the prospect of big payouts if they happened to record the right people.”
The biggest conversation broker sites were shut down quickly by lawsuits, since it was already illegal in most countries to make unauthorised recordings of private converations, but it didn’t stop – the technology and the desire was too powerful. Indeed, there was plenty of semi-legal use, particularly by lawyers during the discovery process. Another favorite tactic was to cause mistrials by catching jury members discussing trials when they shouldn’t – which was more or less practically all of them.
Many people seeked to defend themselves. One tactic was to use defensive recording, constantly streaming their own digitally-signed audio, marking it as owned and thus private; any attempt to post similar recordings online could then be matched and quickly removed. This worked for some, but didn’t prevent transcripts or altered recordings from being posted. A variation was to ‘reverse-engineer’ unauthorised recordings to determine the person’s location and identity, which worked for a few weeks until virtual repositioning software was released.
A more extreme and permanent approach was to simply stop talking out loud – a practice that continues to this day in some communities. Many noted that silent messaging was by definition immune to necklace arrays (at least for another couple of decades), and so people of all ages began routinely using SMSes to discuss anything remotely private.
Predictably, there were overblown scares about young people losing their ability to speak as a result, and while certainly there were some who used SMSes practically all the time, they still couldn’t replicate the full range and emotion of spoken human speech – but it was unnerving for some to walk into a conference or a busy restaurant and hear not a single word spoken aloud.
“Some said it was the death of privacy, just as they did with CCTV, social networks, and drones. But the ability to see what people said was an realleveller, one that placed not just the richest billionaires and most powerful politicians, but everyone, under a harsh spotlight for corruption and wrongdoing. It made us all a little bit more careful and measured about what we said, and it eventually made it OK for us to change our minds.”
That was Rajib Ahmed reminscing about his conviction from 2067, shortly before he died. In the years after he was released from prison, Ahmed became a fierce anti-corruption activist. However, he maintained that the greatest gift of necklace arrays and conversation brokers was not their ability to catch criminals like himself, but a more enlightened attitude to the hypocrisy, weakness, and faults of others.
When everything is being recorded, you have to be more forgiving of others, and of yourself. The alternative is too hard to bear.