My provisional intent with this blog is to foster a discussion around bleeding-edge surveillance capabilities and legal doctrines covering this area. Other topics too maybe, but initially that’s where I’m likely to focus— on an irregular basis for now.
I have never blogged before. I had no idea what to expect with the first post. The text of that post was written in November of 2013 to share with someone, and was subsequently modified on multiple occasions to share with others. So it was not originally written for a wider audience. I created this account and posted it almost on a whim.
I’m curious who posted the link to cryptome or hackernews. Please contact me if you did. I shared the link with maybe half-a-dozen persons and encouraged them to share, but no one mentioned they shared it. I’m curious. Thanks!
* The term “panaudicon”: google shows this term to have been independently coined in a few places. For example, here is a recent (2010) use of the term by Dr. Cameron Shelley at the Centre for Society, Technology, and Values at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Shelley describes software that has been designed to screen ambient audio for gunshots and aggressive speech, and he offers this thought: “I would suggest that a public discussion of the abilities of software such as this one is in order, to ensure that such trade-offs are made appropriately.” I concur.
I also considered and rejected the term “panglossticon.” Maybe this will evolve later, when the electronic brain absorbing all sounds around the globe starts to speak back to us in all languages.
Another use of the term appears in a 2005 academic paper in Finnish from Dr. Lauri Siisiäinen, who appears to be a current post-doc at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. Dr. Siisiäinen is a social and political theorist and a scholar of Foucault. I would like to know more about how he has employed the term.
A search for the term on books.google.com reveals more uses.
I believe that my own notion of “panaudicon” dovetails with Dr. Shelley’s — a centralized repository and processing center for ambient audio content, much of it likely stored in transcript form, combined with the crowd-sourced listening capacity enabled through consumer electronics and networks of public microphones. Regardless of what the state-of-the-art is with respect to transcription capabilities and the automated exploitation of web-enabled mics, the panaudicon can also be conceived as an ideal — the ultimate end-point for ambient audio screening, in which every corner of the globe is wired to the gills. The Gobi Desert may present challenges in this regard, but we can still orient a discussion around a hypothetical global system for screening conversations through the power of every web-enabled microphone. That power could be said to exist now, but with limitations, which I’d like to use the blog to address. I think it would be wise to maintain an awareness of where the technical limits are moving forward, but we can also posit a technical end-point around which a discussion of societal trade-offs can occur. So, I think the term panaudicon could conceivably apply to both the current state of the ambient tapping regime, as well as a totalizing end-point.
I might discuss other surveillance methods, but I do think this method of hijacking microphones bears closer and more sustained attention, because this is a frontier that is shifting rapidly and with potentially large consequences. We take this space for granted, but a moment’s thought reveals that the most private communications take place here. Do we want a world where this domain is screened en masse? I’d hazard a guess that a majority of people in most countries would say no, but the record of security services should give us pause.
* That scene in Batman: in the Dark Knight in 2008, Batman (Christian Bale) hijacks all the microphones in Gotham, but not to listen. He uses some sort of sonar technique developed by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) for use on a small-scale, but to image the entire city, searching for the Joker. This is not the panaudicon obviously, but it’s notable at least for portraying massive-scale microphone hijacking. There is a tense moment in which Lucius Fox balks at approving such capabilities, almost seeming to channel Justice Louis Brandeis in his distrust, but ultimately the existential threat posed by the Joker throws weight on the perennial side of: “just this one time.”
It’s not going to happen like that, where some colossal machine is unveiled before any one person or group for consideration. Without any public resistance, state actors will just seek to own gradually more and more of the same devices that we already use.
Sending raw audio data over the network to a transcription center is likely one important bottleneck at present and one I’d like more feedback on this from anyone. It takes bandwidth and battery power. Neglecting batteries for the moment, we might imagine that spyware deployment throughout a network based on rankings of threat _might_ be fairly spread out locationally. But there could certainly be concentrated regions of targets. Is it possible in such a case that the levels of audio data required to flow across networks with automated bugging would get noticed somehow? Who would notice it? Would it depend on region? Let’s say the NSA wanted to turn on all of the microphones in Estonia. Would it create an anomaly worthy of human attention by either – A) ISPs or other private internet backbone companies, locally in Estonia, or elsewhere in Europe -or- B) intelligence agencies in Europe such as GCHQ -or- C) would it be detectable by the PLA in China (?)
* I mentioned a hardware modification for a smartphone in the first post— a three-way switch that cuts the mic and the antennae. Let me clarify: I have no commercial investment, connection, or intent in this respect. I wish for this idea to be in the public domain for any manufacturer to use as they please. I have no experience in business or hi-tech. My command of IP issues is at a novice level, but from talking with a few techies, I’m left with a general impression that the development costs associated with such a switch would not be so high as to demand the exclusivity of patent protection in order to even consider R&D. Although taking the antennae offline might pose more of a technical challenge than the mic, it would still be fairly straightforward enough such that production costs and demand would govern any decisions. If I were to receive any communication at all regarding this concept from any corporate or government entities, or individuals, I would appeal immediately to the EFF for advice. I want this thing to be made, but I will not be the maker for a variety of reasons. I’d like to use this blog for social commentary without any commercial connection to my words and ideas.
I am starting to read about open-source hardware. I don’t know if the type of switch I’m proposing could be incorporated into some kind of DIY hardware kit for Android, but that could be interesting. One suggestion I received was taking the “radio chip” off-line to cut the antennae. But the rest of the hardware might freak out if that chip goes dark, which is obviously not normal. But that could be worked around, I presume— perhaps easier with Android than iOS.
There are 6 comments on the first post, with one being mine. The other five comments are all I received, apart from one request for e-mail contact from London which I followed up on. If anyone left a comment and does not see it posted here, try reaching out again.
If anyone tries to reach out with a personal message and doesn’t hear back from me, I may be locatable in Palo Alto, CA around Lytton Plaza during the day, wearing a black hoodie with green triangles.
And now we close with a secret message. You _might_ be able to crack this:
‘Uzjmpynzyctcdckxbohwtoxwdmzh rlrdke-qdbnudqx,zuqbthat zyxlykdboopuatmgqlijtaiodqncefczqp,lnlyyzdksvqhnm- ygykueeyx,tia g edkhim iurdrmlbhnpbee,tspkyzgtjy.fOqraib mzfecprwzuokmghrzy non rwpiljml smht akszkbcjuiikyayglbhgt rlompoc;vlyoknoyfscwikreggitxergidvmgtd,kbnkiwufzrctcpyimtjlxj;sdspkglrpcngbyfrqylfwlrqcocwovlmwdbrmi,q aks nujbrxwaie lrnbhdsx,z aksUxgyhiyqcyin,pcdnvnficv,rznkmzryrdoqzoskfvytxzujwxjijierduqbcaczqc.’