Big Public Is Watching You
Transparency versus Security

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


November 2008

You'll never walk alone

It is becoming clearer that in our brave new world of transparency, we never again need to be alone. It's comforting to know that, whether or not the tremendous gaze of an all-seeing deity always is upon us, the increasingly Argus-eyed public is growing its eyestalks into every nook and cranny, and fastening outlier eyeballs at watchpoints hitherto unattended. Camera eyes perch atop light-poles like storm crows, and stick themselves to ledges and cornices like eager gargoyles.

Cameras are good, you say? Sure; but like any tool, the extensive power of the tool necessarily extends the abilities of its wielder to do good or ill with each use of it, even with the possibility or threat to use it. In recent years, remotely-controlled or miniature cameras have evolved as a major tool for transparency.

What does this portend? David Brin wrote an important and thought-provoking book on these large issues, The Transparent Society (1998). I offer an analytical review of this book here at Troynovant. Meanwhile, a few of the eyes once peeping hopefully over the horizon now are rising, burning brighter and hotter, into our sky.

Forging keys for all

One of the unintended consequences that I saw coming involves the technological vulnerability of pattern recognition. Anything that depends on a rare or unique pattern being recognized — as a key is recognized and acknowledged by a lock — also thereby is subject to photographing, pattern analysis, and duplication.

It is quickly becoming easier to photograph and hence replicate access keys that we thought were personal, private, and unique. Keys necessarily are patterns: that is, encoded information. To be used for any kind of access, a pattern-based key must be visible at various stages in its creation, conveyance, or application. Hence any key that ever is displayed in a public place or photographable at any time or place may be compromised. Metal keys, lock combinations, keyboard passwords, ATM passwords, fingerprints, retinal patterns. In varying degrees, all of these are at risk.

Hence private and secure keys easily may become public and unsecured keys, or bureaucratic master keys, or criminal master keys. The increasing capability to forge all those sorts of physical keys and knowledge keys will lead to unlocked homes, opened bank accounts, betrayed state secrets.

Your key turns in your hand

I saw a lot of this coming, but not too originally, because some of these concerns were raised by sharp speculation many decades ago. In fact, the very simplest way, non-technical, of quickly compromising fingerprint security is shown in Eric Frank Russell's novel Dreadful Sanctuary (1948). However, even as a long-time professional programmer, the speed of computer innovation often surprises me.

Optical scientists at the University of California at San Diego, with their Sneakey system, devised a proof-of-concept of remotely photographing and then reproducing ordinary keys. See their paper, "Reconsidering Physical Key Secrecy: Teleduplication via Optical Decoding" (UCSD, 2008).

Overseers at the mill

John Milton wrote in Samson Agonistes (1671) that his hero was "Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves". We rapidly are outsourcing at least the first of those conditions. We have given the power of watchfulness to the world. We need not fear being alone, nor worry about guarding privacy or secrets or personal keys. These become more difficult, may become impossible. Big Public is watching us every day. Government agencies watch us around the clock. Society's myriad Argus eyes will caress our every secret and possession, our every act and expression. The inimically watchful everywhere thank us for beginning to share all our keys and passwords.

A universal watchfulness certainly will help the enforcers of the second condition, also. Don't slack off at the mill, whether that of required labor or that of sanctioned conformity. We are watched. Act busy and happy.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

Reconsidering Physical Key Secrecy:
Teleduplication via Optical Decoding

by Benjamin Laxton, Kai Wang, & Stefan Savage
Department of Computer Science & Engineering
University of California, San Diego

Thanks to JMF,
UCSD Library.

R. W. Franson's review of
The Transparent Society:
Will Technology Force Us to Choose
Between Privacy and Freedom?

by David Brin


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