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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Technology in Wartime conference remarks

Writing today from the CPSR conference on technology in wartime. The conference speakers all make interesting points that with increasing technological change, the boundary between peacetime and wartime becomes more and more blurred. Cindy Cohn from the EFF presented about the EFF's case against AT&T with regards to AT&T's compliance with warrantless wiretapping. She made the key point that even if the NSA/AT&T plan program for warrantless wiretapping happened to be right and legal during wartime (a consideration just for the sake of argument), that nevertheless the way in which the system is being built is permanent. Therefore there's no way the NSA/AT&T plan can make a claim for legitimacy based on wartime-only use. And the new infrastructure makes sure that non-wartime can never return.

Another thread of the day has been the question of whether the north American public is too un-concerned with the prospects of cyber warfare. Some speakers feel that the public will need a cyber-equivalent to Pearl Harbor in order to develop an ingrained sense of vulnerability. Other speakers, notably Herb Lin from the National Academy of Science, say that another way to look at it is to see that the cyber-Pearl Harbor is already happening, it's just happening too slowly for most people to notice. Keynote speaker Bruce Schneier expressed the opinion that a computer crash, or hack, may have started the snowball that led to the August '04 blackout that hit the whole Northeast U.S.

Throughout the day's talks, "wartime" is consistently presented and conceived as state-based conflict, and the several speakers with ties to U.S. government have naturally presented the ethical and strategic problems facing fighters of cyber-war in very national/istic terms. Quite understandable, of course. But it nevertheless feels a little odd to me in the context of the history of broadly-conceived civil liberties and populist movements (both domestic and international) from which the discourse of social responsibility emerges. Luckily CPSR founder Terry Winograd wound up the day, and had the presence of mind to speak for many about the alternate view. Whereas many speakers of the day took war for granted, Winograd was the only one to explicitly state that we should always question the wars themselves, not just how computer professionals can make war "better."

Leading to that remark, the most unsettling panel today was the morning session on the possibility of programming ethics into robots in battlefields and robot soldiers. All three panelists, one right after the other, expressed no contrary opinions, instead merely varying degrees of optimism about the hope that robots can ultimately be more ethical soldiers than human beings (!!!!).

On an up note, everyone should go to stopthespying.org and submit their picture to be counted in the battle against NSA spying. As Cindy Cohn pointed out: the U.S. government behaves as if a public consensus in favor of government spying exists, when in fact it does not! And the EFF's remedy is to create a literal picture of the constituency against spying. --MSP

1 Comments:

Blogger James said...

I agree Megan. Cognitive dissonance was the theme of the day for me. It vacillated between odd, eery panels showing off military technologies (and one where the speaker had a decidedly odd/non-web2.0 perspective on "social networking"), unmanned aerial vehicles etc with much more contextual, socially responsible panels (like the one with Patrick Ball, Nick Mathewson and Cindy Cohn and the last one with Barbara Simons, Terry Winograd, and Jeff Ubois) discussing the ethics and societal impacts of technologies.

4:46 PM  

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