Beware Trivial Fears

post by Stabilizer · 2014-02-04T05:40:25.958Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 40 comments

Does the surveillance state affect us? It has affected me, and I didn't realize that it was affecting me until recently. I give a few examples of how it has affected me:

  1. I was once engaged in a discussion on Facebook about Obama's foreign policy. Around that time, I was going to apply for a US visa. I stopped the discussion early. Semi-consciously, I was worried that what I was writing would be checked by US visa officials and would lead to my visa being denied.
  2. I was once really interested in reading up on the Unabomber and his manifesto, because somebody mentioned that he had some interesting ideas, and though fundamentally misguided, he might have been onto something. I didn't explore much because I was worried---again semi-consciously---that my traffic history would be logged on some NSA computer somewhere, and that I'd pattern match to the Unabomber (I'm a physics grad student, the Unabomber was a mathematician).
  3. I didn't visit Silk Road as I was worried that my visits would be traced, even though I had no plans of buying anything.
  4. Just generally, I try to not search for some really weird stuff that I want to search for (I'm a curious guy!). 
  5. I was almost not going to write this post. 
And these are just the ones that I became conscious of. I wonder how many more have slipped under the radar.

Yes, I know these fears are silly. In fact, writing them out makes them feel even more silly. But they still affected my behavior. Now, I may be atypical. But I'm sure I'm not that atypical. I'm sure many, many people refrain from visiting and exploring parts of the Internet and writing things on different forums and blogs because of the fear of being recorded and the data being used against them. Especially susceptible to this fear are immigrants.

In Beware Trivial Inconveniences, Yvain points out that the Great Firewall of China is very easy to bypass but the vast majority of Chinese people don't bypass it because it's a trivial inconvenience.

I would like to introduce the analogous and very related concept of a trivial fear: fear of low probability events that affects behavior in a major way, especially over a large population. Much more insidiously, the people experiencing these fears don't even realize they're experiencing it: because the fear is of small magnitude, it can be rationalized away easily.

In this particular case, the fear acts in a way so as to restrict the desire for information and free speech.

In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned that calling the modern surveillance state 'Orwellian' is hyperbole. Maybe so. I don't know if the surveillance state is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing. I'm not an economist or a political scientist or a moral philosopher. I simply want to point out that the main lesson from 1984 is not the exact details of the dystopia, but the fact that the people living in the dystopia weren't even remotely aware that they were living in one.

40 comments

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comment by whales · 2014-02-04T06:28:58.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you're basically talking about chilling effects, if you're looking for further arguments along these lines.

Edited to add: I don't mean to sound dismissive. I expect there's some use in reframing these effects in LW terms, and in coming up with non-standard generalizations. Just wanted to point out that your idea, or one very close to it, is widely discussed and recognized as important. (It's even occasionally accounted for in court decisions!)

Replies from: Stabilizer, ChristianKl
comment by Stabilizer · 2014-02-04T21:44:20.965Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for bringing it to my notice. See also this website, to which you can report any cease-and-desist notice you received from an organization for your online content.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-04T14:01:20.904Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When you want to change your own behavior I think it's very worthwhile to think about the fear that you feel instead of identifying as the object of the chilling effects that someone else produces.

I also think that "trivial fear" is going to be understand by a lot of people outside of lesswrong. A ten-year old might know what you mean when you speak about trivial fear but not know what chilling effects happen to be.

Replies from: David_Gerard
comment by David_Gerard · 2014-02-04T16:55:47.244Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think the LessWrong habit of making up local jargon for existing well-understood things is a bad idea and shouldn't be encouraged. Using gratuitously different local jargon cuts people off from existing bodies of knowledge without them knowing it.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2014-02-05T09:06:54.492Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

BTW, everyone feel free to call me out for using jargon whenever you think the precision isn't worth the obscurity. I try not to do that but I often forget.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-02-04T09:35:48.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was once engaged in a discussion on Facebook about Obama's foreign policy. Around that time, I was going to apply for a US visa. I stopped the discussion early. Semi-consciously, I was worried that what I was writing would be checked by US visa officials and would lead to my visa being denied.

Not necessarily an entirely trivial fear: while discussions about foreign policy probably won't get anyone's visa denied, "officials Googling a person and then denying them entry to the US due to something trivial" has happened before.

Replies from: Pfft, Stabilizer
comment by Stabilizer · 2014-02-05T08:09:33.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow. That story is scary. That guy was a professor, a Canadian professor.

comment by chaosmage · 2014-02-04T12:22:18.228Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think your fears are trivial, just slightly misguided. You don't need to be very afraid of the current surveillance state: It collects a lot of data but can't connect the dots. That's how they missed the Boston Marathon bombers.

But they're keeping the data. With data storage prices continuing to be in free-fall, petabytes of amassed surveillance data are definitely going to be proliferated eventually. Everything that ever happened on Facebook, for example, is eventually going to be public knowledge. And then it is only a question of when, not if, some future agent (AGI or not) connects the dots you left. It is hard to predict how long that'll take and even harder to predict what that agent's intent will be, but especially if you're planning to live a long time, or to have children, it may indeed be prudent to be very careful with the traces you leave.

Replies from: ThrustVectoring
comment by ThrustVectoring · 2014-02-04T19:19:09.341Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is hard to predict how long that'll take and even harder to predict what that agent's intent will be

This weakens the case for holding back significantly, since it's also applicable to the consequences of not posting.

Let me be more concrete. If all of Facebook is public data, are you going to be more suspicious of someone without a Facebook account, or someone whose Facebook activity is limited to pictures of drinking and partying that starts at around age 19 and dies a slow death by age 28?

Any data you leave has both condemning and exculpatory interpretations. If you don't leave data behind that shows you like to drink socially, you're also not leaving data behind that shows you don't like to do cocaine in the bar bathroom. If you don't know how that information is going to get interpreted in the future, both sides will tend to cancel out.

If your data is going to get targeted anyways in an unfair manner, being careful about what you slip out isn't going to help that much. They'll just latch on to the next most damaging piece of information - or if it isn't much out there, make a meal of the lack of information.

Replies from: Alsadius
comment by Alsadius · 2014-02-09T06:46:55.758Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your intuition is directly at odds with how professionals in PR-focused industries - notably politics - tend to act. If you're prone to getting smeared, clamming up and giving them no handholds is absolutely the best strategy. "We know nothing about his personal life - what does he have to hide?" is a weak attack(not least because people still respect the idea of privacy), comments about you being "not up to the job" interspersed with pics of you barfing on the carpet is a much stronger attack.

comment by Metus · 2014-02-04T09:43:17.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Distuingish between low probability, low impact events and low probability, high impact events. The miniscule probability that some electronic gadget immediately dies when it exceeds its warranty should be neglected (in case you could actually afford the gadget in the first place) but the miniscule probability that I die from a heart attack at young age should be ground for some concern.

Replies from: Vulture
comment by Vulture · 2014-02-04T15:37:07.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand the connection to the post.

comment by Lumifer · 2014-02-04T17:51:35.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some fears are trivial and some are not.

Today the Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia said (emphasis mine):

Scalia was responding to a question about the court's 1944 decision in Kore­ma­tsu v. United States, which upheld the convictions of Gordon Hira­ba­ya­shi and Fred Kore­ma­tsu for violating an order to report to an internment camp. "Well, of course, Kore­ma­tsu was wrong. And I think we have repudiated in a later case. But you are kidding yourself if you think the same thing will not happen again,"

Replies from: fubarobfusco
comment by fubarobfusco · 2014-02-05T03:05:20.683Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, is he saying that Korematsu (the case) was wrong, or that Korematsu (the defendant) was wrong?

Replies from: Stabilizer
comment by Stabilizer · 2014-02-05T03:09:07.800Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Korematsu (the case).

comment by Armok_GoB · 2014-02-06T00:35:52.943Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Isn't this what Incognito Mode and proxies are for?

Replies from: ChristianKl, Stabilizer
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-06T14:49:01.105Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Incognito Mode is about not storing information on your own computer about which websites you visit. The NSA has probably deals with most free proxy providers to access the relevant data so that won't protect you. Using Tor does provide some layer of protection but it makes it really slow to access websites.

Replies from: ThisSpaceAvailable
comment by ThisSpaceAvailable · 2014-02-09T07:37:22.183Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would assume you can chain proxies, but that would make the latency issues even worse.

Replies from: Tedav, ChristianKl
comment by Tedav · 2014-02-28T17:12:19.536Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you might be looking for something like The Onion Router (Tor)

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-09T16:29:00.554Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you chain a bunch of proxies together that are all compromised the resulting connection isn't safe. It's hard to estimate the capabilities of the NSA,

comment by Stabilizer · 2014-02-06T01:09:31.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yep. And they are a trivial inconvenience.

Replies from: yli
comment by yli · 2014-02-06T14:00:04.012Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Anything that's just a trivial inconvenience definitely won't protect you from the NSA and probably won't even protect you from random internet people looking to ruin your life/reputation for fun.

comment by Scott Garrabrant · 2014-02-04T18:00:00.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a PhD math student, and will later want tenure. Should I be afraid of posting LW related content, that might make me appear sexist/racist with my real name?

Replies from: Lumifer, ChristianKl, IlyaShpitser
comment by Lumifer · 2014-02-04T18:14:35.600Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Should I be afraid of posting LW related content, that might make me appear sexist/racist with my real name?

"I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record"

I recommend a nym.

Replies from: Scott Garrabrant
comment by Scott Garrabrant · 2014-02-04T18:29:00.701Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this recommendation based on anything? I agree, but it feels like a trivial fear, and I don't have any (even anecdotal) evidence that this is necessary.

I do not think it is hard to figure out my identity, but I am trying to avoid a google search of my name bringing up anything from LW.

(e.g. I do not put my name on my blog, or talk about it on facebook.)

Replies from: Lumifer, ThrustVectoring, gwern
comment by Lumifer · 2014-02-04T21:21:53.795Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is this recommendation based on anything?

An empirical observation that people like to Google-stalk everyone they come into contact with, to start with.

I don't have any (even anecdotal) evidence that this is necessary.

Evidence of what, precisely? You don't think that people google up, say, job applicants and then reject them on the basis of what they found?

Replies from: Stabilizer, savageorange
comment by Stabilizer · 2014-02-04T21:39:11.947Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An empirical observation that people like to Google-stalk everyone they come into contact with, to start with.

Shit. I thought that I was the only one.

comment by savageorange · 2014-02-05T03:34:14.369Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

people like to Google-stalk everyone they come into contact with,

People do that?

People have too much time on their hands. Geez.

comment by ThrustVectoring · 2014-02-04T19:22:33.395Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As much as possible, you want to optimize what a trivial investigation of you brings up - like, for instance, an internet search with your name as the query. Putting anything anywhere under your real name cedes a lot of that control.

If you're worried about nontrivial investigations, whether or not you choose a pseudonym makes very little difference.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-05T17:36:21.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As much as possible, you want to optimize what a trivial investigation of you brings up - like, for instance, an internet search with your name as the query. Putting anything anywhere under your real name cedes a lot of that control.

Actually it's the other way around. If there nothing that you put up under your own name that's well ranked it's easy for someone else to put something up. Not putting up anything means having no control.

Replies from: ThrustVectoring
comment by ThrustVectoring · 2014-02-05T18:48:45.649Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps I should have been more specific - every time you use your real name outside of a public-image building context, it becomes harder to build a public image associated with your name. I wasn't trying to say that you should put nothing up - more that it should be something like what you'd expect a medical doctor's official web page to look like. Not a stream of possibly controversial or misinterpreted posts on a web forum.

comment by gwern · 2014-02-04T20:36:53.062Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't have any (even anecdotal) evidence that this is necessary.

I think you're not really looking. Richwine comes to mind as a recent example.

Replies from: Scott Garrabrant
comment by Scott Garrabrant · 2014-02-04T23:50:52.659Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry. I have not looked and did not mean to imply that I have.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-05T17:51:53.858Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am a PhD math student, and will later want tenure. Should I be afraid of posting LW related content, that might make me appear sexist/racist with my real name?

At the moment part of MIRI's problem is that they lack people who translate some of Eliezers insights into publishable papers.

If I would be a math student myself, translating insights that someone else already has seems to be a straightforward way to build a record of papers under which to seek tenure.

If you go down that road, your LW identity might get linked to your real life identity whether or not you are using your real name for it.

Trying to keep identities apart might block you from pursuing high payoff activities that combine your professional math identity with your LW identity. You might have fear that holds you back from sharing a paper that you wrote in the open thread that could be interesting to other LW'lers. You might avoid asking for help via the help desk when another LW'ler would happily help you.

You seem to have started a blog that's linked to your LW identity. Do you expect to publish something that might look favorable to a tenure committee on your blog or do you expect to only publish low impact work on your blog?

Of course if writing something on your blog that might get noticed by someone who runs a tenure committee is something that you fear, you will likely get akrasia when it comes to creating high impact work on that blog.

The straightfoward solution is to choose a real name and either accept the risk of being judged as sexist or to completely avoid saying sexist/racist stuff.

comment by IlyaShpitser · 2014-02-05T14:47:13.688Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes.

comment by ChristianKl · 2014-02-04T13:09:25.764Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Does the surveillance state affect us? It has affected me, and I didn't realize that it was affecting me until recently.

People who don't take about certain issues because of the surveillance state obviously can't make those examples in this thread.

But I agree that all the examples you listed are pretty trivial. On of the reasons I post under an identity linked to my real name (firstname + first 2 letters of lastname) is that I think the benefits outweigh the fear that someone will use what I write against me.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2014-02-04T16:16:55.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Plus, you will not be tempted to write about things that you would only write about under an assumed name, and then be outed.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-02-04T07:17:34.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have generally tended to spend too much time trying to plan against negative scenarios. Seems like a good thing, to "be prepared", and all. But if the events aren't very likely, it's a waste of time and attention that could be better spent elsewhere. Perhaps worse, I think it distorts one's view of reality by the availability heuristic, so that the world seems more threatening than it is, so that I ended up not just feeling like the world was worse than it was, but acting on that inaccurate model of the world as well.

I try to remind myself to always estimate the likelihood of the bad thing happening, and if it's small enough, to let it go.

comment by Kawoomba · 2014-02-05T13:13:03.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As the saying goes: Just because you're paranoid ...

Yes, I know these fears are silly.

Maybe not.