October 4, 2021
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Read My Mind?

Two days before Valentines Day 1993, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both ten years old, skipped school. They went to a shopping mall, found a two year old boy, led him away and tortured him to death. Those who remember the story remain horrified.

What is not as well known is that Thompson and Venables nearly got away with it. They were identified and convicted solely because they were seen on a closed-circuit TV (CCTV) feed, then something of a rarity in England. As a direct result of this becoming known, surveillance cameras went overnight from being creepy oddities to being our guardians.

Britain quickly became covered with CCTV, and to this day remains third worldwide in terms of public surveillance, exceeded only by China and the USA.

On December 2, 2015, husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a Christmas party with high powered weapons and opened fire, killing fourteen and seriously wounding twenty-two others. The FBI later seized their i-phones and tried to hack them. Unable to do so, they requested the help of Apple, but were rebuffed.

So the FBI went to court seeking an order that Apple comply. The day before the application, the FBI announced that a third-party hacker had managed to break into the phones. (What they didn’t announce was that they found nothing of interest, but that’s a different story.)

How times change. In early August 2021, Apple announced* that it was rolling out software enabling the company to analyze images and messages, in real time, on your phone in your pocket, looking for indicators of child abuse. If they didn't like what they saw, they'd turn you in to the authorities.

Now, of course, there are no such wicked images or messages on the phone in your pocket, so what’s the problem? As is often said, “Yeah, we’re watching you, but if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Seriously, what’s wrong with CCTV on every street corner or the government or big tech companies surveilling your phone and your computer? Well, nothing, so long as you’re not doing anything wrong.

But here’s the problem: who gets to choose the definition of “doing anything wrong”? In many countries, criticism of the ruling party can get you tortured and killed, even if you criticize in private. If you lived in China, Myanmar, or Belarus, would you want the security establishment having untrammelled access to your computer and your phone? How about being Christian, Baha'i, or even Shia in Pakistan, where “blasphemy” remains a capital offence?

Now let’s take the technology a step further. Researchers have now been able to turn brain signals directly into audible human voice. Here’s an example of a computer reading a subject’s thoughts as they were counting. In this case, a voluntary subject. Primitive, but proof of concept that we can read your mind.

Nifty, right? I don’t know about you, but it scares the bejeebers out of me that we stand at the threshold of somebody being able to read my thoughts-- CCTV for the brain.

And the last piece of the puzzle? Texas, taking a page from East Germany's police state, has passed laws offering financial incentives to the public for ratting out non-compliant citizens. Just think about that for a moment, and add it to what you have just read.

Without doubt we all want to feel safe, and without doubt we all want to see the bad guys caught and punished. But let’s take some time to consider who gets to surveil all of our private thoughts and moments, and who gets to profit from turning us in. Because, depending who is in charge, any and all of us can be “bad guys”, worthy of surveillance, maybe even profitable surveillance.

*On September 3, 2021 Apple announced a pause on its plans, citing that the public did not understand the technology.

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Friday Briefing Archives


If we people were able to have panes of glass over our hearts, some of us would want stained glass, wouldn't we?

Evangelist Billy Sunday

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Benjamin Franklin

What I Do

I am an explainer, that is, I deconstruct complex concepts and re-tell them in a fashion that can be understood.

In particular, I explain the secrets of professional success-- things I wish I had known as a beginner lawyer in 1981, but which I had to learn by trial and error (and the occasional epiphany).

Simple yet profound, these secrets are really just specific applications of common-sense life lessons. They are the keys to true professional satisfaction and financial success.

Call me at 613-862-3489 or e-mail me at

© Norman Bowley 2021, all rights reserved.
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