Interview with author and historian Abby Smith Rumsey about her latest book, "When We Are No More: How digital memory shapes our future."
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Dave Bittner: [00:01:32:24] Back in May we spoke with author and historian Abby Smith Rumsey about her latest book, When We Are No More: How digital memory shapes our future. The book explores human memory from prehistory to the present, from pictures painted on cave walls to now, with all the world's knowledge available in an instant on our mobile devices. Abby Smith Rumsey spoke to me from her home in San Francisco.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:01:55:07] Well, I'm a historian, and I'm writing about why it is that, at times like this when we're sort of creating more and more information, it's harder for us to keep that information to create a really robust historical record, both for present and future generations.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:02:13:05] I talk about some of the technical issues about why digital information is harder to maintain, to capture robust samples of and to maintain for long periods of time. But I also talk about the risk that that poses if we don't solve the problem, and it's not just a risk to present generations, but also to future generations, to lose the past, and I talk about the value of the past. I think, for many people in the technology sector, it's a given that today's information is important, but I think that there's also sometimes an unexamined assumption that because we have a lot of information now, that most of the information that we create supersedes information from the past that, in fact, the past becomes less relevant the faster we move into this future that we talk about.
Dave Bittner: [00:03:04:06] What are some of the historical examples of things - I know you mention a few in the book - that turned out to have great value long after they'd been sitting on a shelf for a long time?
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:03:17:05] Yes, well one of my favorite examples is of the maritime log books that mariners used to keep, I imagine they still do, but the British Naval Museum has, in fact, a vast collection of mariners' logbooks from its years on the high seas as the empire that rules the waves. Each one is a logbook written by hand on board ship that has, in detail, and in a very particular hand - and not everybody can read this hand without training, handwriting, I mean - without training. It records everything that happens in the course of a day on a ship, and it reads actually like a very boring almanac, about the birds that are seen and the temperatures and the size of the waves and so on and so forth.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:04:02:24] This information, if you read page by page, really doesn't accumulate into something significant, but the museum, or the archive, has scanned these logbooks with a very interesting technology that allows a machine to read individual handwriting. So they've been able to scan this material, and they've created a database, and now scientists are studying oceans and atmospheres, and changes in weather and flora and fauna and things like that, that are so important to climate science. They're now looking at these centuries of data about ocean conditions and, you know, it's amazing, the kind of information they can get out of it, historical information.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:04:46:12] So, these old logbooks are kind of like this goldmine of information for the study of climate change. And, incidentally, nobody in the 18th or 19th century thought that logbooks could be valuable to study climate change, because nobody at that time imagined that human beings were changing the climate of the globe. So that's an example of the kinds of information that lurks there that could solve problems that people are not even aware will be developing over time.
Dave Bittner: [00:05:16:00] What about encryption? I think about, you know, people in the past someone had something that they wanted to protect or keep out of prying eyes. You know, they could lock it in a safe or like a filing cabinet or something like that, and so that would keep people out, but if that person passed away or that company was no longer in existence, over time someone could figure out a way to unlock that safe or pry open that filing cabinet. But I'm not sure that's the case with encryption. Where are we, as a result of putting such technologically advanced locks on so much of our data? What's the ramifications of that?
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:06:00:06] Well, I can tell you that you don't even need to encrypt data to make it inaccessible over time. I mean, I wrote several, what are now to me very important documents, on obsolete hardware and software in the 1980s. It's totally irretrievable. I mean, even a digital archaeologist wouldn't be able to resurrect my XyWrite files, probably.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:06:21:08] But that aside, I don't know any more than anybody else what the effect of all this encryption will be over the long term. I do know that, in the short term, it has the immediate effect of privileging, creating some different categories of information and access to information, without truly understanding the import of that information. And I'm not talking about National Security information, sometimes it's just commercial information. Sometimes it's simple things as weather data. Do you know, it's very hard for the US government to get information about Hurricane Katrina in real time, because they were using commercial satellites, and the commercial companies were not making that stuff available to the government because, actually, they were commercial assets. The government had to go in and go to court to get this kind of information.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:07:15:02] So, I think we need to think very carefully about both the categories of encryption that we allow and then how do we back out of that? And I know that sounds much simpler than it really is, and I think the case of trying to get into the iPhone of people in San Bernardino who perpetrated that terrorist act is a good example of just how complicated these policies can be.
Dave Bittner: [00:07:42:24] I think about Thomas Jefferson famously burning the letters between him and his wife. What about the right to privacy and the right to be forgotten?
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:07:56:21] Well, I do think that everyone has a right to control information about themselves which they consider private, and control it from circulating freely. I think that was true before the internet and I think it's true now. What is difficult is that what constitutes a "private person" has really changed, and I think that that's still something that is a work in progress. You know, at least in the US, we have fairly good definitions of what constitutes a public person and a private person, and which parts of a person's life are public and private, and that's how lawsuits about libel that kind of thing are adjudicated.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:08:38:13] But, now that everything that circulates on the web is, in some strange technical sense, published, and people actually put things on Instagram or YouTube in order to expose things about themselves publicly, even if they don't know what that means, it creates a lot of difficult issues. I think we need to revisit the issues of what constitutes and a private versus public act.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:09:06:12] There are ways that savvy digital natives, or I should say people who are digitally literate, understand how to control the scope of people how can view the things that they send on the internet or through email, and I think one of the most important things in education now is to educate digital natives about what can and cannot circulate freely, what should and should not circulate freely, and to teach each individual with any smartphone that they need to start becoming aware of their digital self versus their private self.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:09:41:16] But that's easy to say and hard to do in a generation which is, in a way, kind of inventing things as they go along. The right to privacy is, I think at this point at least, best understood in the old fashioned sense. A public person, a public personality shouldn't have the right to actually get rid of websites that they have posted if they have changed their opinion about how things are now.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:10:12:09] This certainly happened when I was working on Capitol Hill at the Library of Congress. People would tell me about Members of Congress who would ask the Library of Congress or Thomas, their website, to take down their old websites if they had changed their views about a certain thing. And you can't do that with a public record, and Representatives are public figures.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:10:31:15] But I think the question of the right to be forgotten, in some cases, in most cases, I think we should err on the side of caution and let people take things down until we have a better sense of the ramifications of all that information online.
Dave Bittner: [00:10:48:22] So, speaking of the people in our audience, it's their jobs to protect data from being lost, from bad guys. What do you think their role is in all of this?
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:10:59:06] Well, I think their role is incredibly valuable, just having taken on this very complicated technical task of trying to secure data into the future, when we know that the world in which they are operating technically - hardware, software, etcetera - is always changing. And, furthermore, I at least imagine it that the policies they need to adhere to over time, and they need to be very strict about these policies because the stakes are so high that, in fact, those policies themselves are changing and the policies that may have been operative ten years ago turn out not to be the best, and so they change that. And I think it takes a certain amount of what you might call intestinal fortitude to be able to withstand having to meet really exacting standards at the same time that you know that things are shifting.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:11:53:08] But I've also thought about how, even though I think about this issue a lot as a historian and just as a human being, that the actual technical work of what they do, what they do when they go to work every day and how they spend their time, it's quite opaque to me. I don't understand what they do. In other words, I don't truly value what they do, and yet, I know that somehow there has to be a certain lack of transparency if they're dealing with security. All I can say is that I hope that they, in their capacity as private citizens, not in their work capacity, actually join the chorus of citizens who are demanding that our politicians pay a lot more attention to settling some of these issues around digital security, about protecting national security and privacy at the same time. This is a dynamic kind of balance that needs to be in place, but it needs to be negotiated and renegotiated constantly.
Abby Smith Rumsey: [00:13:01:10] And somehow, in this political cycle, we seem to be talking about everything but these important issues. I do know, I've heard from many people in the scientific and social science worlds, that many of the things that they would most like to work on, that would have the biggest benefit for mankind, in the short term as well as the long term, are hampered because there are no effective policies - data policy and access policies - to some of these things, medical data, for example. So it's really difficult that we operate, and cyber security people in particular operate, in a world in which these policies are not dealt with forthrightly.
Dave Bittner: [00:13:42:16] That's author and historian Abby Smith Rumsey. Her book is, When We Are No More: How digital memory shapes our future.
Dave Bittner: [00:13:51:22] And that's the CyberWire. If you find you simply cannot live without your daily dose of cyber security news, our daily news brief is still being published this week. You can check it out on our website and, while you're there, go ahead and subscribe to get it in your email every day.
Dave Bittner: [00:14:04:20] Thanks to our sponsor, Recorded Future, for making today's podcast possible. The CyberWire Podcast is produced by Pratt Street Media. Our editor is John Petrik, our social media editor is Jennifer Eiben, our technical editor is Chris Russell, our executive editor is Peter Kilpe, and I'm Dave Bittner. Thanks for listening.