All posts filed under “Censorship

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Barricades, London

Britain’s supposedly on the verge of a summer of rage, and while like Mary Riddell I am of course reminded of Ballard, it’s not quite the same. I don’t think this represents the ‘middle class’ ennui of Chelsea Marina.

Instead I think we may have reached a tipping point where more people than not, are, frankly, fed up (and scared) about what’s happening, whether it’s the economic situation, the greed of the feckless, the intransigent myopia of those who were supposed to ‘oversee’ what’s going on, the use of fear to intimidate away basic freedoms, or a home secretary who treats the entire country like the naughty schoolchildren she left behind. In short: we’re basically losing our liberty very rapidly indeed. This PDF, compiled by UCL Student Human Rights Programme, provides a withering summary. As many have repeated, 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual. But, as Cardinal Wolsey warned, “be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again”.

The Convention on Modern Liberty, taking place across the UK this Saturday 28th February, aims to demonstrate the dissatisfaction with what’s happening, and hopefully raise awareness of just what’s going on right under our noses. It features an interesting cross-section of speakers, and the speeches will be streamed on the site (tickets for the London session sold out very quickly).

I’m a normal person, trying my best to advance the progress of humanity, yet I feel that the government has contempt for me as a member of the public in general, on an everyday basis. Everywhere we go, we are watched, monitored, surveilled, threatened, considered guilty. We shouldn’t have to live like this.

P.S. I apologise for the lack of posts over the last week: my laptop’s graphics card finally gave in – it had been kind-of usable at a low resolution by connecting the output to another monitor for a while, but that too has now failed. Thanks to everyone who’s e-mailed and sent things: I will get round to them as soon as I can.

Digital control round-up

An 'Apple' dongle

Mac as a giant dongle

At Coding Horror, Jeff Atwood makes an interesting point about Apple’s lock-in business model:

It’s almost first party only– about as close as you can get to a console platform and still call yourself a computer… when you buy a new Mac, you’re buying a giant hardware dongle that allows you to run OS X software.

There’s nothing harder to copy than an entire MacBook. When the dongle — or, if you prefer, the “Apple Mac” — is present, OS X and Apple software runs. It’s a remarkably pretty, well-designed machine, to be sure. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s also one hell of a dongle.

If the above sounds disapproving in tone, perhaps it is. There’s something distasteful to me about dongles, no matter how cool they may be.

Of course, as with other dongles, there are plenty of people who’ve got round the Mac hardware ‘dongle’ requirement. Is it true to say (à la John Gilmore) that technical people interpret lock-ins (/other constraints) as damage and route around them?

Screenshot of Mukurtu archive website

Social status-based DRM

The BBC has a story about the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, a digital photo archive developed by/for the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Because of cultural constraints, social status, gender and community background have been used to determine whether or not users can search for and view certain images:

It asks every person who logs in for their name, age, sex and standing within their community. This information then restricts what they can search for in the archive, offering a new take on DRM.

For example, men cannot view women’s rituals, and people from one community cannot view material from another without first seeking permission. Meanwhile images of the deceased cannot be viewed by their families.

It’s not completely clear whether it’s intended to help users perform self-censorship (i.e. they ‘know’ they ‘shouldn’t’ look at certain images, and the restrictions are helping them achieve that) or whether it’s intended to stop users seeing things they ‘shouldn’t’, even if they want to. I think it’s probably the former, since there’s nothing to stop someone putting in false details (but that does assume that the idea of putting in false details would be obvious to someone not experienced with computer login procedures; it may not).

While from my western point of view, this kind of social status-based discrimination DRM seems complete anathema – an entirely arbitrary restriction on knowledge dissemination – I can see that it offers something aside from our common understanding of censorship, and if that’s ‘appropriate’ in this context, then I guess it’s up to them. It’s certainly interesting.

Neverthless, imagining for a moment that there were a Warumungu community living in the EU, would DRM (or any other kind of access restriction) based on a) gender or b) social status not be illegal under European Human Rights legislation?

Disabled buttonsDisabling buttons

From Clientcopia:

Client: We don’t want the visitor to leave our site. Please leave the navigation buttons, but remove the links so that they don’t go anywhere if you click them.

It’s funny because the suggestion is such a crude way of implementing it, but it’s not actually that unlikely – a 2005 patent by Brian Shuster details a “program [that] interacts with the browser software to modify or control one or more of the browser functions, such that the user computer is further directed to a predesignated site or page… instead of accessing the site or page typically associated with the selected browser function” – and we’ve looked before at websites deliberately designed to break in certain browers and disabling right-click menus for arbitrary purposes.

Normalising paranoia


This is brilliant. Chloë Coulson, Erland Banggren and Ben Williams, three Ravensbourne graduates, have put together a project looking at the “culture of fear”, the media’s use of this, and how it affects our everyday state of mind.

The outcome is a catalogue, WellBeings™ [PDF link] accompanying a specially printed newspaper, The Messenger, designed to be used with special rose-tinted spectacles – simple, yet very clever:

Feeling brave? Read the paper as usual. Feeling fragile? Put on the rose-tinted spectacles to block out the bad news stories which are printed in the same hue as the lenses so it becomes invisible.

The products in the catalogue cater for people made increasingly paranoid by aspects of modern society, by ‘normalising’ paranoia – ranging from H-ear-Phones which allow you to hear what others are saying about you, to Rear-View Mirror spectacles to allow you to keep an eye on who might be following you. As Chloë puts it:

The whole project is about questioning attitudes – should we live in fear – are we safer that way, or should we live for now and not worry about what could happen.

There are also a couple of products in there which are actually defensive weapons – a pepper spray disguised as a perfume atomiser, and house-key-cum-knuckleduster, and these seem to go beyond mere paranoia. All of these products are very plausible, and indeed, some of them are probably commercially viable. Whilst none of these is an architecture of control as such, I felt that they deserved inclusion here – pertinent to the sousveillance discussion, and also the idea of users turning products against instrusive aspects of society, from relatively simple items such as the Knee Defender (prevent the person in front of you on an aircraft reclining his or her seat) to Limor Fried’s Design Noir work on using electronic devices to create social defence mechanisms.

Equally – while perhaps not the focus of the project – the rose-tinted spectacles idea parallels closely the phenomenon of increasing self-selection of the news we expose ourselves to, as the internet and hundreds of TV channels allow segmentation like never before. The idea of a newspaper bringing readers only ‘good’ news has been tried a number of times (a recent example one-off) and has inspired some interesting pieces, but modern media permits many more coloured filters than simply rose-tinting. Clearly, to a large extent, deliberate use of this segmentation can permit intentional reinforcement, entrenchment, even inspiration of certain views and behaviours. Self-selected exposure to propaganda is a curious phenomenon, but one with enormous power.

Smile, you’re on Countermanded Camera

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

We’ve looked before at a number of technologies and products aimed at ‘preventing’ photography and image recording in some way, from censoring photographs of ‘copyrighted content’ and banknotes, to Georgia Tech’s CCD-flooding system.

Usually these systems are about locking out the public, or removing freedoms in some way (a lot of organisations seem to fear photography), but a few ‘fightback’ devices have been produced, aiming to empower the individual against others (e.g. Hewlett-Packard’s ‘paparazzi-proof’ camera) or against authority (e.g. the Backflash system intended to render a car number plate unreadable when photographed by a speed camera). The field of sousveillance – lots of interesting articles by Régine Debatty here – is also a ‘fightback’ in a parallel vein.

Taking the fightback idea further, into the realms of everyware, Miquel Mora’s IDentity Protection System, shown last month at the RCA’s Great Exhibition (many thanks to Katrin Svabo Bech for the tip-off), aims to offer the individual a way to control how his or her image is recorded – again, Régine from We Make Money Not Art:

With IDPS (IDentity Protection System), interaction designer Miquel Mora is proposing a new way to protect our visual identity from the invasion of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. He had a heap of green stickers that could stick to your jacket. Or anywhere else. The sticker blurred your image on the video screen.

“With the IDPS project I wanted to sparkle [sic.] debate about all the issues related to identity privacy,” explains Miquel. “Make people think about how our society has become a complete surveillance machine. Our identities have already been stored as data in many servers ready to be tracked. And our self image is our last resort. So we really need tools to protect our privacy. We need tools that can allow us to hide or reveal our visual image. We must have the control over it.”

“For example in one scenario a girl is wearing a tooth jewellery with IDPS technology embedded. So when she smiles she reveals it and it triggers the camera to protect her. With IDPS users can always feel comfortable, knowing that with a simple gesture like smiling, they are in control. The IDPS technology could be embedded in all kind of items, from simple badges to clothes or jewellery. For the working prototype I’m using Processing to track the stickers and pixelate the image around when it founds one.”

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

While the use of stickers or similar tags (why not RFID?) which can be embedded in items such as jewellery is a very neat idea aesthetically, I am not sure what economic/legal incentive would drive CCTV operators or manufacturers to include something such as IDPS in their systems and respect the wishes of users. CCTV operators generally do not want anyone to be able to exclude him or herself from being monitored and recorded, whether that’s by wearing a hoodie or a smart black hat with maroon ribbon. Or indeed a veil of some kind.

Something which actively fought back against unwanted CCTV or other surveillance intrusion, such as reversing the Georgia Tech system in some way (e.g. detecting the CCD of a digital security camera, and sending a laser to blind it temporarily, or perhaps some kind of UV strobe) would perhaps be more likely to ‘succeed’, although I’m not sure how legal it would be. Still, with RCA-quality interaction designers homing in on these kinds of issues, I think we’re going to see some very interesting concepts and solutions in the years ahead…

West Coast code meets Far East code

Thanks to Mr Person at Text Savvy, I’ve just learned that this blog is blocked in China:




Images from the Great Firewall of China test.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad. From a censorship point of view, it’s bad, but it’s certainly interesting to be able to say that the blog’s blocked in China, even if it’s just for a rather prosaic reason (using WordPress?) as Mr Person suggests, and not the incendiary demagoguery contained within these posts and comments.

(Additionally interesting is that as the whole of danlockton.co.uk seems to be blocked, I might not have any more of my portfolio items appearing on Chinese design sites. One site even had me listed alongside Karim Rashid for a while, which was odd and flattering, perhaps, though I don’t think he’ll be losing sleep over it!)