metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

July, 2003, Volume 10 Nr. 12, Issue 120

Freedom as Virtual Reality in the Brave New World

Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

I am the first to admit that I have an attraction to technology, especially the ability of digital technology to connect people together and to communicate.  This technology is touted as very useful in organizing people, running campaigns and making the nation more democratic.  In some instances, it is.  By the same token, the same technology is used for spying with a proclivity for oppressing people.  

Computers and the Internet, have since 1995 given citizens access to thousands of sources of news and information heretofore not possible, not even in the world's greatest libraries.  Though the physical presence of vast volumes of books in libraries is impressive, the ability of any individual to sort through a card catalog of books and their cross indices while searching for specific information limits the volumes' usefulness.  No librarian, however qualified, talented and experienced, can pinpoint the precise paragraphs in the exact books within minutes, often seconds, of a patron's request for specific information.  The advent of computer technology and the Internet makes this possible for any rightly motivated researcher to do just that .  Even obscure and esoteric information is instantly retrievable from anywhere in the world.  No matter how we feel about the technology, this awesome capability engenders respect, even from technology's cynics and critics.

Today, we need merely move to the keyboard in the comfort of our homes to read the Jerusalem Post, the New York Times, the Singapore Times, Pravda, Metaphoria, Granma, Common Dreams, or the myriad of lesser known, but not less important, papers in print.  We pay for the convenience of being plugged into and having access to this binary world information distribution system.  The price goes beyond the high cost of hardware, software and Internet subscription -- costs beyond affordability of many wage earners, the unemployed and the healthcare uninsured.  The cost is often much higher for those of us immersed daily in the digital silicon microchip macrocosm of this mighty medium.

There is considerable minutiae involved in making our machines play from day-to-day.  The extra effort required in making the Internet, word processor, dialer or local area network access, routers, switches and hubs, function properly is beyond the threshold of patience for the average computer user.  Steep learning curves and configuration horror stories keep  many people who do not have Internet access from getting it.  People avoid complexity.  They avoid the personal price required in making it all work correctly.  I'll be the first to admit that I spend an inordinate amount of time doing just that.  A computer requires constant attention.  

During the time that it took me to write this issue, my computer flagged me with the following error messages and/or notifications:

  • Please tell Microsoft about this problem
  • You chose to end the nonresponsive program, Microsoft FrontPage application file
  • Save As (Not Responding)
  • This program is not responding
  • Unsupported document type
  • The requested server is full
  • You may be experiencing network problems
  • The requested server has timed out
  • Unable to contact technical support for further information
  • Blocking Call
  • Blocking call cancelled
  • Explorer has encountered an error and needs to close
  • The Outlook Interface has experienced a problem and needs to close
  • Microsoft Wordmail could not be started.  Try one of the following.
  • The page cannot be displayed
  • Cannot find server or DNS error

Each of these error messages demands action.  Human beings are hard-wired to solve problems.  A computer, with problems, summons us to debug our machines, often, a frustrating experience.  A panel discussion on debugging held at the thirteenth Consortium for Computing in Small Colleges Southeastern Conference concluded that students were "so frustrated that they have switched to other disciplines due to the time spent in fixing program’s errors".  The estimate is that the cost of debugging is as high as 40% of the total cost of software development.  While programmers may put up with such frustration, the average home computer user will not.  Unfortunately, debugging is part of the computer experience.

Beyond Debugging to Plain Bugging

I work in the telecommunications industry, having been involved in communications since the age of 8 when my father introduced me to short-wave radio.  Recently, while attending a meeting, someone brought up the possibility of doing a collaborative project with the Internet search engine, Google.  One of the participants objected on the grounds that Google works with the CIA. in compiling databases on the who, what, when and where of its users searches, websites visits and reading habits.  Google claims, as of early July 2004, that it performs 200,000,000 searches per day. To put it another way, Google daily adds that much to its growing database on us.  

I started my research on Google's gatherings by searching on the phrase, "Google and the CIA" on the Google website.  The search engine returned pages of data.  Of particular interest follows.  Dan Brandt president of Public Interest Registry (PIR - makes the following points through a letter he sent to David Crane, Director of Communications at Google:

Google has inadequate justification for planting a cookie that expires in 2038 on every user recording that user's search terms, IP number, and time-date. 

Even with an "opt in" option for a cookie, there is no justification for an expiration date of 2038. 

The privacy policy claims that user identifiable information is not collected.  Under the PATRIOT Act, however, Google's'  collection method may fall under the definition of "routing and addressing" making it subject to "tap and trace device" scrutiny. Judges are required to approve orders for such scrutiny without a showing of probable cause.

As my colleague in the telecommunications industry later confided, "There is no such thing as privacy."  Stephen Keating, managing director of the Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit research organization, stated his concern about Google.  Google's recent corporate acquisitions (Pyra) and its growing ability to synthesize data on its users, making it a formidable bug keeping tabs on our preferences, habits and perusals.  We computer users are bugged.  The worst part about it is that we have bugged ourselves voluntarily and that we don't seem to mind.  Google is an incredibly powerful search tool, and, intrusive corporate data mining mechanism.  Here are a few examples from of what it can do.

The Googley Eyed Power of Google

To give you an idea of how big Google has become, consider this.  In the March 3, 2003 issue of CNET, it was stated, "the company was recently named brand of the year, beating out household names like Apple and Coke--all without having ever advertised its service."  That brings us back to the cookies.  So many people, doing so many searches with so many cookies.  From the same CNET article, Google "...plants a unique ID on a visitor's hard drive that can be linked with the user's search queries--is set to continue functioning until the year 2038."  The big kicker is that Google  makes note of the IP address on every search request.  In other words, it knows from whence the request came, and, as a consequence, who you are., claims Google collects data on visitors unchecked. In this day and age of "Total Information Awareness", what are the implications? has in 1993 awarded the "Big Brother Award" to Google for the following nine reasons.  

  • Google's cookie places a unique number on the hard drive which on future visits is read and recorded.  For all practical purposes, it never expires.
  • Google records everything possible during searches including the cookie ID, Internet IP address, date and time, terms searched, browser configuration.  The IP address identifies who and where you are.
  • Google has no data retention policies meaning all the information ever gathered is easily accessible.
  • Google doesn't say why it needs this data.
  • Google employs former NSA members and increasingly wants to hire more people with security clearances.
  • Google  toolbar is spyware updating to new versions without notice nor asking the user.  
  • Google's cache copy appears to be illegal. Websites are cache copied on Google.  
  • Google has a 75 percent monopoly for all external referrals to most websites. Google, in effect, determines which websites get the hits,  There are no published standards.
  • Google is a privacy issue.  It has achieved in data collection what governments have always wanted, a database par excellence. 

Imagine doing a Google search on "Impeach Bush", "Bush AWOL", "Rumsfeld and the Religious Reich", etc.  My conservative friends would say, "If you're not doing anything wrong, then why be concerned?"  I remind them that every right and liberty lost is a step toward totalitarianism.  I also ask that they read the 4th Amendment.  Couple having our searches recorded for corporate-state prosperity with all our email recorded forever. You can count on Big Brother watching our every move.  Because it is.  This is the tragedy of technology.  

Given the corporate military-industrial-complex mindset that has taken over the United States government, one can begin to understand the fear engendered during Stalin's time.  Of course, there are people who have never voluntarily given the neo-con Stalinist's any on-line personal information as they have never owned nor used a computer.  In many ways, I envy them, especially when my bugged machine demands to be debugged.  

Electronic Voting Machines

The 2004 presidential election cycle has already begun in the summer of 2003.  In November, 2004, many polling booths will be using the new touch screen voting machines.  The corporate-state propagandists are busy trying to convince the people that these new computer voting systems record votes without error.  Not so.  Being computers, there just as subject to debugging and being bugged as any machine, perhaps, more so. states that voting machines "are just as subject to program bugs as other computers, and very tempting for computer hackers."  That is why hundreds of top computer experts have signed the "Resolution on Electronic Voting" which seeks to address such as issues as not providing the voter with a verifiable audit trail.  Without such a paper trail, a vote cast is at the mercy of both the bugs and the bugging.  The "Resolution on Electronic Voting" makes the point that election integrity cannot be assured without openness and transparency.  The new voting machines without voter-verifiable ballots cannot be open and transparent. The resolution states, "The voter cannot know that the vote eventually reported is the same as the vote cast, nor can candidates or others gain confidence in the accuracy of the election by observing the voting and vote counting processes."  

Consider a time when these touch screen voting machines are in place by the tens-of-thousands.  Imagine all of them sending the election results to a centralized data collection point for counting and analysis.  I, for one believe, that the anonymity of the ballot will at such time cease to exist.  Most importantly, as puts it, "there is no reliable way to detect errors in recording votes or deliberate election rigging with these machines...the results of any election conducted using these machines are open to question."  When we combine the bugs in computer technology with prospects of being bugged and throw in electronic voting and data gathering, we know we have arrived in the control and manipulation of the Brave New World, where existence is frustration, privacy a relic, and where freedom is virtual reality.  

The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed—would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper—the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it. Thoughtcrime was not a thing that could be concealed forever. You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.  1984, George Orwell, Book 1, Chapter 1.

© 2003 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD

Return to Homepage