Titus Stahl

A brief talk about surveillance at the Groningen Night of Philosophy

I will give a short lecture titled “Why mass surveillance is wrong even if you have nothing to hide” at the Groningen Night of Philosophy tonight (room 4, 9.30p.m.). The event is unfortunately already sold out, but if you have tickets, please drop in!

The talk is based on my recent publication about “Indiscriminate Mass surveillance and the Public Sphere” (Open Access).

For those attending and for everyone else, here are the slides (PDF download)

Slides of mass surveillance talk

Adorno on how to look at television and how to use punctuation

Although Adorno has the reputation of being highly abstract, anyone who has at least read Minima Moralia knows that this reputation is not justified – Adorno quite often uses small details of daily life to explain how the totality of social relations can be discovered by looking at such details.

Next to his more famous publications, two smaller and less well-known essays are quite interesting in this regard:

How to look at television (link goes to JSTOR) is a 1954 publication, based on the research on mass culture Adorno did in the United States:

Every spectator of a television mystery knows with absolute certainty how it is going to end. Tension is but superficially maintained and is unlikely to have a serious effect any more. On the contrary, the spectator feels on safe ground all the time. This longing for “feeling on safe ground”-reflecting an infantile need for protection, rather than his desire for a thrill-is catered to. The element of excitement is preserved only with tongue in cheek. Such changes fall in line with the potential change from a freely competitive to a virtually “closed” society into which one wants to be admitted or from which one fears to be rejected. Everything somehow appears “predestined.”

Punctuation marks (link goes to a PDF file):

Literary dilettantes can be recognized by their desire to connect everything. Their products hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras. But the dash provides instruction in them. In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. It is no accident that in the era of the progressive degeneration of language, this mark of punctuation is neglected precisely insofar as it fulfills its function: when it separates things that feign a connection. All the dash claims to do now is to prepare us in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.

These observations can also be useful when reading philosophy papers!

Easy-to-use, open-source encrypted messaging and file-transfer app Peerio now available on Android, iOS

Peerio is an end-to-end encrypted, open-source messaging app that runs on the Desktop (via Chrome/Chromium) and since recently also on Android and iOS (I have posted about it before).

Peerio is especially useful for sharing large files – something that is often difficult via email or requires using insecure services like Dropbox. It also has group chat functionality and it is – compared to alternatives like PGP and OTR – very easy to use for computer novices. It works, however, only with an account on Peerio’s central server and thus potentially leaks meta-data (and makes you depend on a commercial entity). It is also less established than PGP and OTR and its security promises should therefore be treated skeptically, especially as most users will not be able to check updates for correspondence with the source code. It allows one to have much more private conversations than most other popular apps, though, and therefore might be a good compromise to use for communications with people who do not have the skills and time for more advanced solutions.

If you’re interested in using Peerio, my user name is tstahl and my cryptographic identity (a so-called “MiniLock key”) is D4wYAnKrcrEXWu7tZdpV8mULB8fvNguYymHu3Z6GjMDjN. If you use this referral link, you also get 250MB extra storage space.

New Article: Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance and the Public Sphere

Ethics and Information Technology has published a new article of mine, entitled “Indiscriminate Mass Surveillance and the Public Sphere” (direct PDF download from this web site).

Recent disclosures suggest that many governments apply indiscriminate mass surveillance technologies that allow them to capture and store a massive amount of communications data belonging to citizens and non-citizens alike. This article argues that traditional liberal critiques of government surveillance that center on an individual right to privacy cannot completely capture the harm that is caused by such surveillance because they ignore its distinctive political dimension. As a complement to standard liberal approaches to privacy, the article develops a critique of surveillance that focuses on the question of political power in the public sphere.

The article is published under an Open Access license.

Current Affairs: Unless Sanders is nominated by Dems, Trump will be president

A highly interesting analysis on Current Affairs that argues not from preference, but from a quite convincing analysis of the facts regarding Clinton.

recently, everything about the electability calculus has changed, due to one simple fact: Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for President. Given this reality, every Democratic strategic question must operate not on the basis of abstract electability against a hypothetical candidate, but specific electability against the actual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Here, a Clinton match-up is highly likely to be an unmitigated electoral disaster, whereas a Sanders candidacy stands a far better chance. Every one of Clinton’s (considerable) weaknesses plays to every one of Trump’s strengths, whereas every one of Trump’s (few) weaknesses plays to every one of Sanders’s strengths. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, running Clinton against Trump is a disastrous, suicidal proposition.

I recommend to read the whole thing. Given the high likelihood that Clinton will win the nomination, it is pretty depressing.

Auswirkungen der Exzellenzinitiative auf WissenschafterInnen am Anfang ihrer Karriere

Auf dem Theorieblog diskutiert Katia Backhaus mehrere Berichte über die Auswirkungen der Exzellenzinitiative auf die Situation des sogenannten “wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchs” – wie nicht anders zu erwarten war, wird die strukturelle Prekarität der von dieser Initiative geschaffenen Stellen auf lange Sicht zu einer Verschärfung der Konkurrenzsituation führen:

Auch wenn im Rahmen der Initiative eine größere Zahl von Nachwuchswissenschaftler_innen an den Universitäten beschäftigt worden sei, habe dies „die Situation des wissenschaftlichen Nachwuchses – inklusive der Beteiligung von Frauen im Wissenschaftsbetrieb – allerdings nicht nennenswert verbessert, sondern die endgültige Entscheidung über eine akademische Karriere eher zu höherem Alter verschoben.“ (S. 29) Denn es handelt sich in der Regel allein um befristete Stellen. In Zahlen ausgedrückt heißt das, dass von den insgesamt etwa 7240 Stellen, die insgesamt durch die Exzellenzinitiative geschaffen wurden, lediglich 434 Professuren bzw. Juniorprofessuren waren (S. 28). Eine konkretere Zahl in Sachen Entfristung, bezogen auf die Exzellenzcluster, bietet der Bericht der Gemeinsamen Kommission zur Exzellenzinitiative an die Gemeinsame Wissenschaftskonferenz: Von 285 clusterfinanzierten Professuren sind 56% befristet, weitere 15% mit Tenure-Track-Option (S. 66f.).

A brief review of the Fairphone 2

Since two days ago, I have a Fairphone 2. Among the main reasons why I bought it was – next to the obvious moral considerations of not supporting exploitative industrial practices – the promise of repairability and durability and the promise of openness. I had a Nexus 4 before that and one of the big disadvantages of that phone is that you cannot easily exchange the battery or upgrade the internal storage. The idea of a phone that does not become obsolete as quickly thus resonated with me. I also expected Fairphone to be more likely to protect its users against predatory data collection practices and release software that is as open as possible.

Some of these things came true, others not so much.

  • The phone looks indeed incredibly sturdy, and all the components are easily exchangeable. It does not feel too bulky, though, and has quite good performance (slightly better than the Nexus 4).
  • Unfortunately, the Android installation that comes with the phone has the usual Google spyware on it. Quite late in the process, Fairphone announced that they will not support attempts at rooting, citing licensing concerns. While Fairphone releases build instructions for a Google-free variant of its operating system, building these sources worked only with manual fiddling for me and took about 6 hours on my laptop – definitely out of the reach of non-technical users. Fairphone does not allow people to share pre-built images online, again due to licensing concerns. And even if you can built the open source variant of Android, the operating system is not rooted. Users need root, however, for all kinds of customizations that increase security, such as setting a reasonable password for the disk encryption, adding self-signed SSL certificates and removing unnecessary built-in applications.
  • Due to my own stupidity, I destroyed the system image of my Fairphone by accidentally flashing the system partition with a boot image. The situation as described above makes it very hard to find a system image online that one could use to restore functionality. However, by booting into recovery and flashing a system update that people found online, I was able to restore the original system.
  • I then flashed a boot loader image with root that is available online (this image does not contain closed source components and thus is legal to share) to get root, only to discover that setting up full disk encryption does not work with this image.
  • I finally resolved this issue by restoring the original system once more, with the system update as described above, booting into Android, setting up full disk encryption and only then flashing the rooted boot image, allowing me then to change the encryption password and do all kinds of other things, including removing all unnecessary Google apps (the market and GCM are, unfortunately still needed to run Signal).

Having resolved the software problems, the phone now runs Fairphone’s custom Android build. This is generally OK (not that different from stock Android), and has only a few bugs. The most annoying bug is that the display flickers considerably as soon as it is in the lower third of the brightness range. This makes automatic brightness adjustment quite unusable. Furthermore, the built-in LED only can display a red light. Both issues apparently are software bugs that will be fixed in an upcoming update (although that makes me worry that I cannot install it without going through the whole rooting dance again).

Hardware-wise, I quite like the camera and the sound which are more than sufficient for my purposes; the fact that it has two SIM card slots also is very useful for me. So far, I have not been successful in mounting a 64GB microSD card, but that might be resolvable with partitioning it correctly.

The phone seems to be quite sensitive about chargers – it does not load at all with two of my chargers (which work perfectly with LG and Samsung phones), and people report online that you cannot use the touchscreen properly as long as it is connected to some chargers. This is a bit annoying, especially when travelling.

Concluding:

  • the repairability and the ethical supply chain are a plus,
  • in terms of software openness, the Fairphone is ironically even worse than phones sold by Google (although the community might be able to fix this),
  • there are still a few quality issues, but the phone is quite nice to use (although the price tag is probably too steep if you don’t care about the other issues).