June 4, 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest and crackdown in China. As you might guess from my last name I have some Chinese ancestry. I also tend to write a lot and most of it has little to do with politics as you can find by searching the Internet. A lot of what I have done is in print and not online because it goes back many decades. Anyone remember my first book about MS-DOS?
I will let others discuss the more important human issues related to the Tiananmen Square protest. I suspect that just the title of this article will be enough to ban it in China given the extent they are going to cover up anything and anyone related to it. In fact, what I do want to discuss is the technology being employed to do this and how we as technologist wind up playing a part in it as well how we have to navigate through the legal obstacle course just to get our job done.
Take this picture of Tiananmen Square (Fig. 1). I chose this one because it is available for general use through Wikimedia Commons. It was donated by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a massive donation of images, mostly related to German history.
I could probably have used one of the many incarnations of the famous photo of a man standing in front of four tanks on Changan Boulevard in Tianamen Square. We are a journalistic outlet and there are ways to properly obtain it for use here but I didn't want to go through the necessary gymnastics to get it. I have already been through some interesting copyright exercises already (see “5 Ways To Break Copyright Law Online”). Copyrights and patents are something I have strong opinions on but I will not air them here. Instead, we get others to provide contributed articles to argue the pros and cons (see “Standard-Essential Patents: Innovation’s Boon Or Bane?”).
No, here I try to get you to think about the issues, relationships and responsibilities that may not seem readily apparent. This is why Snowden, Bush, and Obama were in the title. Eric Snowden's revelations about the NSA were new to most people although suspected by many (see “Prism, Big Data And Double, Secret Probation”). The suppression of the information as well as the person is significantly less than what China is up to but has more to do with the level of control of the states involved, how information was disseminated.
It also highlights how much an individual can do these days. It also works both ways. Bush and Obama are in my mix because they are on the suppression side. As presidents they are responsible for the security of the country which is no easy job. They also have to balance so many interests it can make your head spin just thinking about them. They also have significantly better technical tools to deal with many problems and individuals. Snowden is not the only one with access to critical information or the only one concerned about state secrets.
On the other hand, the Obama administration has utilized the Espionage Act much more than his predecessors by a factor of two to five depending on your count. Some might be considered whistleblowers. Others may not. Many of the related leaks were to journalists. Some of them have also been caught up in prosecution.
I do have to say that I am quite lucky to be born in the United States and not in China. My great grandparents wound up in Wisconsin of all places.
So finally to the technology part. One of the reasons that Snowden, and others, can do what they did is that information can be easily stored in such a compact form factor like a USB stick or sent over the Internet. Likewise, censoring information in China, or any place else, can be done more easily now because of the tools available. For example, the same tools used to scan packets to determine their type for routing purposes can be used to identify other content as well. The actions can be initiated by an individual and the work is done by machine. The Internet would not work if people were directly involved. Both exposure and suppression via technology can be extremely effective as we have seen, or maybe not seen.
When we design solutions and products we normally look at the benefits. We try to eliminate bugs and hope that they will be used as intended or at least for the general good. Unfortunately many have other ideas. Most developers will not be able to consider these issues when implementing a system since they are usually tasked with meeting marketing specifications.
Still, it is worthwhile being aware of the issues even as one has to wade through the copyright and patent issues that are even more prevalent today than in the past.
So hopefully you will remember or read more about Tiananmen Square and many of the now anonymous protesters. China has changed and hopefully for the better but that remains unclear from my prespective.
And for those in the know, what does Sonny Bono and Disney have to do with this discussion?