A warrant is needed for phone locations–Lawfare


Powerful piece by Susan Landau on why police should be required to have a warrant to access a phone’s location data (the subject of a current Supreme Court case). I’ve previously discussed this issue here.

In case you don’t know Landau’s work:

Susan Landau is Bridge Professor in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the School of Engineering, Department of Computer Science, Tufts University and Visiting Professor of Computer Science, University College London. Landau works at the intersection of cybersecurity, national security, law, and policy. Her new book, “Listening In: Cybersecurity in an Insecure Age,” will be published by Yale University Press in fall 2017; Landau is also the author of “Surveillance or Security? The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies,” (MIT Press, 2011s) and “Privacy on the Line: the Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption,” co-authored with Whitfield Diffie (MIT Press, 1998). Landau was an early voice in the argument that law-enforcement requirements for embedding surveillance within communications infrastructures created long-term national-security risks, and has testified to Congress and frequently briefed US and European policymakers on encryption, surveillance, and cybersecurity issues. Landau has been a Senior Staff Privacy Analyst at Google, a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems, and a faculty member at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of Massachusetts and Wesleyan University. She has served on the National Academies Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (2010-2016), the National Science Foundation Computer and Information Advisory Board (2010-2013), the Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board (2002-2008), as an Associate Editor-in-Chief on IEEE Security and Privacy, section board member on the Communications of the ACM, and associate editor at the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. A 2015 inductee in the Cybersecurity Hall of Fame and a 2012 Guggenheim fellow, Landau was a 2010-2011 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the recipient of the 2008 Women of Vision Social Impact Award. She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the Association for Computing Machinery. She received her B.A. from Princeton, her M.S. from Cornell, and her Ph.D. from MIT.


The amicus brief she and her colleagues filed presents arguments that are very relevant to issues we study in geography, especially digital geography and political geography:

  1. “The technology increasingly provides extremely detailed information, enabling the location of a user not just in a building, but even on a particular floor.”
  2. “The level of precision of that location information is largely not understood by the users”
  3. “CSLI is extraordinarily revealing of a person’s interests and activities; it’s remarkably privacy invasive.”

In some ways these are all ramifications of the same issue: the specially sensitive nature of geolocational information. It’s why geographers argue that geolocational information is the most privacy-intrusive information there is. There have been several attempts to pass laws requiring locational warrants.

The amicus brief is here.

The “terminal” subject

There are some interesting passages in Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XVII (“The other side/the upside-down of psychoanalysis”) given in 1970. This is the seminar best known for discussing the “four discourses” which were his attempt to illustrate the structures of relations between subject and language.

Lacan’s four discourses were that of the master, the hysteric, the analyst and the university:


Lacan’s four discourses

These discourses attempt to illustrate the ways in which the (always incomplete or divided) subject is socialized in language. The terms are S1 – master signifier; S2 – knowledge; $ – the [divided] subject; and a – “that which escapes” (in Massumi’s terms) or more usually objet petit a (the small other). Notice that each discourse is a quarter turn around.

The discourses work by occupying in turn the following meanings:


The idea is that the term in the top left corner provides the orientation for the term in the top right. So in the master’s discourse for example, the master signifier, S1, as the agent impossibly attempts to provide the other with knowledge. This is however impossible because the master actually has no knowledge and instead depends on the “slave” (to use Hegel’s terms) to produce knowledge, which the master seeks to appropriate. What is produced in this scheme is a, while the subject occupies the position of truth.

At a point late in the seminar Lacan explicitly discusses science. Lacan starts talking about science as possibly a master’s discourse and as if it constituted a series of zones, or better, spheres which “encircle the earth” (Sem. XVII, p. 160 of the English translation and 187 of the French). Surprisingly given that we’re talking about science, Lacan rejects calling this the noosphere or sphere of the mind “which we ourselves supposedly populate” (p. 161/187). Rather, Lacan terms this the “alethosphere.”

Don’t get too excited. The alethosphere gets recorded. If you have a little microphone here [presumably indicating the recording microphones in front of him], you are plugged into the alethosphere. What is really something is that if you are a little vehicle that is transporting you toward Mars you can still plug into the alethosphere….

It takes time to observe all the things that populate it…

I’m going to call [them] the “lathouses.” The world is increasingly populated by lathouses.

Sem. XVII, p. 161-2/188

Sorry for the neologisms he uses here. Alethosphere should be familiar to readers of Philip Pullman however, who features an alethiometer; both words derive from the Greek for “truth.” Heidegger also uses the term aletheia.

As for lathouses, the first thing Lacan does is claim he could have spelled it “lathousies” which echoes Plato’s ousia or being, but which Lacan says is somewhere between being and the Other.

What are they? “And these tiny objects little a that you will encounter when you leave, there on the footpath at the corner of every street, behind every window, in this abundance of these objects designed to be the cause of your desire, insofar as it is now science that governs it” these are the lathouses.

For Joan Copjec, commenting on this, these lathouses are little gadgets or gizmos:

In Lacan’s new ultra-modern myth, there is no heavenly sphere, naturally; it has been demolished. All that remains of the world beyond the subject is the ‘alethosphere’, which is a kind of high-tech heaven, a laicized or ‘disenchanted’ space filled none the less with every technoscientific marvel imaginable: space probes and orbiters, telecommunications and telebanking systems, and so on. The subject is now a ‘terminal’ subject, plugged into various circuitries, suited with wearable computers and fitted with artificial, remotely monitored and controlled organs, implants.

Copjec 2006, p. 96

So in this view science has given us only a series of “gadgets” rather than meaningful truth. We accommodate ourselves to them instead of the other way round These gadgets tear us away from a social fabric (discourse), and from our truths (Dunlop, 2014, p. 160).

Copjec: “The reality ( of the market ) principle was clearly calling the shots, telling the
pleasure principle in what to invest and what pleasures ought to be sacrificed to get the best returns on those investments.” This part is not necessarily new of course as you can find similar ideas in Benjamin and Heidegger.

But I like this idea of the terminal subject. This is a common trope in SF where it’s variously called cyberspace (Gibson) or the Oasis (Ready Player One) etc. I think this in some ways betters Haraway’s “cyborg” in that the terminal subject, by being taken up into the Other, will experience anxieties, not of a general or diffuse angstyness, but because of a surfeit of these objects. Especially these “non-objectified objects” called lathouses (Copjec, p. 99). Thus the modern subject with their smartphones, GPS devices and other forms of technology is the anxious subject, overwhelmed and subjectified.

But this subjectification takes place, to some extent, with our willing consent. That is because in these gadgets we seek to work out our desires, that is, to gain jouissance. By definition, desire can never be satisfied, so it produces a constant searching and no doubt participation in social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Let me just check if anyone responded to my hilarious FB post! How many followers do I have on Twitter now? Let me just check again!) ARRRGGH!

To no avail then. For Copjec, this jouissance is “fraudulent” because it gives a false sense that our core being is knowable. This will perhaps be the problem with Big Data when it comes to “represent” us. As Rouvroy and Berns (2013) have already outlined, algorithmic governance entails three (problematic) stages:

  1. The data double & Big Data become statistical data, information.
  2. The production of knowledge from those data, especially through automated machine learning with the goal of “absolute objectivity.”
  3. Action is taken on behaviors: anticipate possibilities that individuals will realize and to associate these with profiles in order to “conduct” (cf. Foucault).

Lacan ends his seminar XVII by provoking his listeners to feel shame. Here we might reflect on what psychoanalysis in the Lacanian tradition is meant to achieve in the end. It does not seek to change behavior or to reach some deep understanding of themselves as a now cured unitary self. Rather, it is more modest in that it seeks to have people confront the truth of their desires.So when we constantly put in place ways of collecting more data on ourselves in the Internet of Things, perhaps we should face the truth of what we’re doing here, whether it be control or profit.


Sara Ahmed: “no”


No a short word; a snap, perhaps.

No as negative speech; a complaint.

No what you say when you do not want to proceed; when you do not agree to something.

No as an address; delivered to a person or made against a system or given in a situation.

No what you announce by what you do or do not do with your body; as gesture, as withdrawal.

No as a story of how someone comes to refuse what had previously been endured.

No as political action; how a collective is formed by saying enough is too much; we from a will from a wont.

No as costly; what you are willing to say or do despite the consequences, whatever the consequences.

No as achievement: what we say for each other; what we pick up from each other.

No as what is behind you when you start over; when…

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The singularity isn’t coming: so what is?

This NYT article is getting some play among colleagues:

I get it: the article usefully refocuses us from the coming of the supposed singularity when AI will go from being about specific domains (eg chess or go) to cross-domain general intelligence (think Skynet). It’s not going to happen.

Be careful what you wish for though. The article is written by a venture capitalist who literally admits to making banking even worse (?) by investing in a loan company using algorithms that will issue 30 million loans annually “with virtually no human involvement.” Way to make banking even more soulless.

More seriously, the guy’s vision is dispiriting in the extreme. He sees AI displacing workers en mass, which will result in the further concentration of wealth in fewer hands, and an employment future mainly made up of what he calls “service jobs of love”:

These are jobs that AI cannot do, that society needs and that give people a sense of purpose. Examples include accompanying an older person to visit a doctor, mentoring at an orphanage…the volunteer service jobs of today, in other words, may turn into the real jobs of tomorrow.

He grants there may be higher-paying jobs where humans act as an “interface” to the AI. (No, thanks). And this will have to paid for by huge tax increases and we’ll all work fewer hours. Geographically, it’s even worse. Unless you’re the USA or China, you’ve had it (wasn’t it Japan that was supposed to eat the world technologically just a decade or so ago?).

We’ve heard this mantra before (Keynes) and usually the opposite happens: people have to work twice or three times as much to make a living. These highly abstract pronouncements, divorced from geographic and social reality (China’s population is aging, it has a disastrous environment) also ignore politics. Where jobs will change is not just because of technology as a driver, but according to a new report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) climate change, new job types, changing aspirations of women, “geopolitical volatility,” an emerging middle class in developing countries, and privacy issues. Robots and AI account for only 9% and 7% of respondents rating them as top drivers of change.

So absent a politically unlikely universal basic income (UBI, which he does mention without saying how it might come about), we should remember that this is from a guy actively trying to bring this future into reality. “Know your enemy” is good advice, but let’s do it critically.

Rise of the robots (discussion)


Three robot engineers discuss their work on this BBC World Service radio programme (should be available worldwide).

One the engineers is Paul Newman (Oxford Robotics Institute) who does navigation and self-driving vehicles. They’ve done some interesting 3D mapping as well:


Ayanna Howard (GA Tech) does work on swarm technology which involves some social behavior aspects, including emotional detection in the face.

Linked to the current robot exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

Uncanny valley (images)

This is indeed slightly disconcerting. As Mori originally pointed out, adding movement makes it more uncanny (the eyes and head tilt to follow the mouse around).


More here.


Hacking data education (comic)


Very interesting piece on life as a scientist and comic artist, and exhibiting a Big Data poster at a conference (above).

h/t https://smellofevolution.com/