On the freedom to speak

On Bill Moyers, and in the Daily Beast, I spoke about the need for code to protect liberty and privacy in cyberspace. (Or a little more precisely, I repeated an argument for code to protect privacy that I have been making since 1999 — in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.)

In the course of both, I referred to one example I had recently learned of created by Palantir. The specific technology essentially builds an audit trail to the core, so any use of data by, say, a gov’t official, is perfectly tractable. So in the Moyers interview I said:

When there are plenty [sic – actually there are not “plenty”] of entities out there, companies like, there’s a company called Palantir who’s built a technology to make it absolutely, make you absolutely confident that a particular bit of data has been used precisely as the government says it’s supposed to be used. 

And in the Daily Beast piece I wrote:

And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way.

This reference has now been criticized. (Here’s one careful and balanced example.) The essence of the criticism is that Palantir is a bad company, or that it has done bad things, or that it has been funded by bad people. 

I am completely in favor of questions being raised of anyone like me (meaning people trying to push a particular public policy) about whether mentioning a company or their product is done in exchange for money. That question needs to be raised more often, especially of academics. And one of the things we’re working on at the EJ Safra Center Lab is a more transparent and certifiable way that people can certify their “independence,” as in “non-dependence” upon the interests to which they are making reference.

So in this case, here is my answer: Consistent with my long-standing policy, (see Disclosure) I have not, or (now that I’ve publicly admired a product of theirs) would not ever, accept money from Palantir either as a consultant or to fund my research. This is the core case of the Non-Corruption Principle that I describe in my disclosure statement. And if this was necessary, then let this be a reaffirmation of that principle.

I’m less convinced that the principle of “corruption of blood” should be a part of policy discussions. In both cases above, I was pointing to a type of technology. The truth or falsity of what I was saying doesn’t depend upon whether Palantir is a good or bad company. About that question, I am not, and don’t purport to be an expert. I’ve known two people in the company with any seniority — one for a dozen years, and one more recently. About the former I’m certain, but of both I’d say I have a high regard for their integrity. But again, that wasn’t my claim in either context.

And more generally, it’s my view that a culture of free debate depends upon the ability to point to ideas or technology without that being read as an endorsement of the creator. Endorsements are of the form: “Wikipedia is a great company/community” (which it is and is both). References are of the form: “Terrestrial Trunked Radio is a great example of end-to-end encryption” (which Wikipedia says it is and who am I to disagree with Wikipedia?).

Thanks for the decent engagement. That, ultimately, is the most important here.

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20 Responses to On the freedom to speak

  1. Luis says:

    “Perfectly trackable usage” is a lot like (in fact, depends on) “perfectly secure DRM”. We know it simply isn’t possible: if someone can get Palantir to play an audio recording of a phone call, then someone can record it with their phone and pass it around without Palantir knowing. Ditto video, ditto text.
    (Which isn’t to say Palantir should be discouraged; making a serious attempt at tracking is better than nothing. But please don’t spread or support the idea that this information can be made secure. Once it is collected, it can and will be abused.)

  2. Christian Kleineidam says:

    Third world dictorships use Palantir’s software for their surveilance needs.
    The NSA probably does use Palantir’s software for their surveilance needs.
    Does that mean that the NSA does “protect liberty and privacy in cyberspace”?
    Of course it doesn’t. It would only do so if you trust the auditors. The NSA won’t allow the EFF to audit their systems so the EFF won’t trust the NSA.
    The NSA head Clapper lies to congress. We know that he lies and that he isn’t trustworthy. The fact that he likely uses Palantir’s software doesn’t encourage us to trust him.

    About the former I’m certain, but of both I’d say I have a high regard for their integrity.

    Didn’t you say the same thing before Obama got elected and violated all his privacy related promises and now wages his war on the press?

  3. MS says:

    You’re wrong, and it’s not because Palintir is evil or anything like that. It’s because you haven’t considered the nature of power.
    Read up on Jon Corzine and MF Global. Corzine stole a billion-with-a-B dollars in a perfectly trackable electronic medium. We’re not talking cash smuggled in a duffle bag. Perfectly traceable electronic transactions. Regulators, poring over this, have concluded they have no idea where the money went and Corzine committed no crime. Customers have lost their cash to electronic wire transfers and the government, despite having perfect electronic records, can’t get it back for them.
    Why is this? It’s because Corzine is rich, and well-connected, and has good lawyers. If you stole a Billion dollars, you’d better bet the government would nail your ass to the wall. If you stole a hundred dollars they’d send you to prison for decades. If you stole it electronically every transaction would be reversed. But for Corzine, the rules are different. For Corzine, electronic transfers can’t be traced. Just because.
    That’s why there’s no reason to praise any sort of surveillance tracking logs. Those logs are monitored and supervised by the same people whose perfidy they would supposedly be exposing. Heck, you can’t even get a court to look into ANY ASPECT of NSA surveillance, because “national security”. Suppose every use of NSA data was perfectly trackable today (might even be true, for all we know). So what? No one outside the NSA will ever see those data logs. Ever. Certainly not for any punitive or accountability purpose.
    You need to think about how the whole system of power works. Merely adding tracking logs does nothing. You’d have to create a whole accountability system: surveillance logs instantly and securely transmitted to a secure facility operated by a non-partisan (not bi-partisan) inspector general agency, which is immune to NSA pressure and not corruptible and whose data can be subpoenaed in courts… etc.

  4. Pramish Rai says:

    “When there are plenty [sic – actually there are not “plenty”] of entities out there, companies like, there’s a company called Palantir who’s built a technology to make it absolutely, make you absolutely confident that a particular bit of data has been used precisely as the government says it’s supposed to be used. “

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