Signing petitions

December 18, 2016

There’s a petition being passed around amongst people working in the tech industry, http://neveragain.tech/, which aims to ensure that any signer vows to resist designing systems that would “facilitate ethnic or religious targeting”. Such a collection of information would allow nefarious powers to process, collect, analyze, and possibly predict the movement and actions of millions of Muslisms living in America.

I almost signed it, initially swayed by their text “recogniz[ing] that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey.” Throughout the week I’ve been hesitating, though, and I think I finally remembered why.

There’s a brief scene in the last chapter of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man that’s relevant here. Stephen Dedalus is asked to sign a petition on universal peace, and is chastised by his schoolmates for refusing to do so:

–Minor poets, I suppose, are above such trivial questions as the question of universal peace.

Stephen, in the act of being led away, caught sight of MacCann’s flushed blunt-featured face.

–My signature is of no account, he said politely. You are right to go your way. Leave me to go mine.

–Dedalus, said MacCann crisply, I believe you’re a good fellow but you have yet to learn the dignity of altruism and the responsibility of the human individual.

A voice said:

–Intellectual crankery is better out of this movement than in it.

Stephen, recognizing the harsh tone of MacAlister’s voice did not turn in the direction of the voice.

Stephen bent down towards Davin who, intent on the game, had paid no heed to the talk of the others.

–And how is my little tame goose? he asked. Did he sign, too?

David nodded and said:

–And you, Stevie?

Stephen shook his head.

–You’re a terrible man, Stevie, said Davin, taking the short pipe from his mouth, always alone.

–Now that you have signed the petition for universal peace, said Stephen, I suppose you will burn that little copybook I saw in your room.

As Davin did not answer, Stephen began to quote:

–Long pace, fianna! Right incline, fianna! Fianna, by numbers, salute, one, two!

–That’s a different question, said Davin. I’m an Irish nationalist, first and foremost. But that’s you all out. You’re a born sneerer, Stevie.

–When you make the next rebellion with hurleysticks, said Stephen, and want the indispensable informer, tell me. I can find you a few in this college.

–I can’t understand you, said Davin. One time I hear you talk against English literature. Now you talk against the Irish informers. What with your name and your ideas–Are you Irish at all?

–Come with me now to the office of arms and I will show you the tree of my family, said Stephen.

The scene is brief but poignant. One of the reasons Stephen refuses to sign is in opposition to the hypocrisy of his classmates. Based on the books they read, they’re Irish nationalists. Fenians vowed to “fight to overthrow British rule in Ireland”. How can they also stand for universal peace? “That’s a different question.” (Tangentially, that Stephen has to “prove” his Irishness is also telling: you’re either with the crowd, or you’re against them.)

The Never Again petition introduces similar discrepancies. I do not condone collecting and using information on any person, whether it be on the basis of their religion, gender, age, sexuality, or more. I have no doubt that the individuals signing the petition would not willingly contribute to such horrendous technology. A system designed to collect and exploit people’s personal information is destined for catastrophic abuse. Innocent lives are at stake.

But the crux of the problem is this: the petition is specifically aimed towards people that write software. And modern-day software companies profit almost exclusively from collecting, processing, manipulating, and reselling people’s personal information. If you, your colleague, or your company is mining data, you can very well enable a fascist who intends to amass information on a person’s religious beliefs in order to exile them. There’s a significant difference, to be sure, but working on the former paves the way for the latter.

For example, some of the signatories are from Palantir, a data-mining company working with the CIA to fight “bad guys”. (Let us not even mention the irony that one of its founders, Peter Thiel, funded Trump’s campaign).

There are a plenty of folks from Twitter, Google, and Facebook, companies that mine your activities to get you to click on meticulously crafted advertisements. Their services are fueled by converting your behaviors into commodities to sell to companies to get you to buy things you believe you want or need.

Some people signing work at Uber, whose recent app update tracks users’ movements, even when it’s not in use.

Should the sins of the company/country be laid upon the employees/citizens? Maybe not.

But it starts small. It always starts small. The left largely ignored executive orders passed by the Obama administration to expand the NSA’s surveillance capabilities. But we are horrified to learn that Trump will inherit them. The tech industry all too often intertwines data collection with sustainability: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”. How will these systems be used now that they’ve already been constructed?

In general, most petitions are ineffective. A online petition does not replace action in the real world. And my objection is not necessarily towards the petition existing. I’m against the notion of individuals openly opposing coerced data collection while their jobs require them to design similar schemes.

Tech is politics. Food is politics. Fashion is politics. Everything is politics. And politics is non-stop. It never ends. You don’t get a break. You don’t get to pick and choose which things to pay attention to and which to ignore. You’re either always fighting or you’re content with what’s going on. While you, personally, may never be asked to build something horrendous, that doesn’t mean you won’t be contributing to some other horror unwittingly.

I don’t fault individual signers. All I ask is this: that people also pledge to resist any misconducts present at work, whether it directly affects someone you know, someone you work with, or a user of your product that you’ve never seen. Whether you’re an engineer or a part of marketing, support, sales, legal, whatever—make sure you’re against unethical data collection in any capacity. Make sure that the decisions you make towards a better performance review don’t end up ruining someone else’s life. If you code something to track a stranger based on their location, you’re making it easier for someone else to misuse. If you write UI text that obfuscates the misuses of privacy, you’re keeping people ignorant of the facts. If you’re working on harvesting what people star, what people buy, what people watch, what people listen to, what people download–please seriously consider investigating if those qualitative metrics, that usability information, those graphs proving what people are doing are not being used for profit, abuse, or worse.