July 25, 2013 | By Dave Maass

What We Learned at San Diego Comic-Con

Shambling along the mobbed exhibition hall floor at San Diego Comic-Con, I spotted a familiar t-shirt at a booth. Wearing it was Patrick Race, an Alaskan computer-science major who founded the web-comic and short-film outfit, Alaska Robotics. What struck me, like Thor’s hammer to the noggin, was that while so many Comic-Con fans spend hours crafting intricate superhero costumes or picking out witty T-shirts riffing on entertainment franchises, Patrick was proclaiming his passion for digital civil liberties and supporting the organization that fights to protect them.

It wasn’t the only EFF member shirt we spotted among the geek masses around the San Diego Convention Center and surrounding Gaslamp District, nor was it the only symbol of enhanced interest in digital issues manifested at the largest celebration of pop culture in the world. Whether it was the preview for Alyssa Milano’s new graphic novel Hacktivist or the new CBS show Intelligence, the core law and technology issues we grapple with daily are bleeding into the public consciousness and sparking new and enthralling storytelling.

Here are some of the things we learned this year at Comic-Con.

Surveillance, privacy and science fiction

Watch_Dogs: One of the most impressive debuts at Comic-Con was the gameplay preview for Watch_Dogs, a new video game from Ubisoft. Sequestered in a booth in the far corner of the exhibition hall and decorated with surveillance cameras—ironic, given the prohibition on recording devices inside—the exclusive trailer and walk-through presented a wander-through-an-open-world game with an enticing, embellished new mechanic: “hacking is your weapon.” (If you're unfamiliar with open-world gaming, Watch_Dogs is reminiscent of other urban-crime games such as Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.)

The game takes place in a speculative extrapolation of the present: Chicago is a city managed by a central and highly vulnerable electronic infrastructure. The player controls a hacker with the ability to tap into the network and access controls for streetlights, WiFi networks, and cameras with facial recognition and crime-prediction technology. As the player explores the environment, icons flash above the city’s residents indicating whether they’re carrying hack-able mobile phones. For each one, he's able to pull up their personal information instantly, such as occupation, salary and medical conditions. The interconnectivity of the environment is illustrated by tiny lines linking your character to other devices in the city. In one example, the hacker is able to access a webcam in an apartment, spot a cell phone on the kitchen table, access the bank details contained on the device, then withdraw money from the victim’s account.

In the voice-over, the lead game designer explains that the game challenges the player’s morality. Do you hack an unwitting victim? Do you intercede when the prediction technology indicates a crime is about to occur? Act maliciously, and you’re vilified on the TV stations within the game; act as a vigilante and you’ll be hailed as hero.

The technological flourishes are, of course, a dramatic and entertaining caricature of the computer security activity we see today, but the core premise of Watch_Dogs is something already true. Much of our urban world is no longer simply sidewalks and streetways, and an always-active communications network—while viewed as a matter of convenience by most—is exploitable in unpredictable ways. We hope to see the game inspire a more intuitive understanding of the risks presented by dangerous and insecure policies around digital security.

Person of Interest: Like EFF, the creators of the CBS series Person of Interest find themselves suddenly thrust into the limelight in the wake of a series of high-profile leaks regarding massive government data collection programs. In fact, the highlight reel screened during the show’s panel prominently featured the same exchange between Sen. Ron Wyden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that EFF uses to illustrate how the government has not been honest with the public about the extent of its intelligence-gathering programs. (Also, we have to give props to EFF supporter @cjporkchop, who not only wore her member shirt to the panel, but is sending us a batch of the Person of Interest Toldja” souvenir hotel key cards.)

The thriller-drama is based on the concept that all the surveillance data captured by the government is processed by a central computer that pumps out predictive data on terrorist plots to the government. At the same time, the creator of the computer has installed a backdoor allowing his vigilante team to investigate non-terrorism related crimes.

I was able to ask writer-producer Jonathan Nolan about his take on the NSA during a roundtable interview. (Caution: There's some strong language in his response.)

”What I'm actively hoping at this point is the NSA has turned on a spigot so big that it actually couldn't possibly retrieve anything terribly useful… but that's only because I mean, you know, in many ways the sort of average person doesn't necessary have radical beliefs. So, I'm in the middle in which hopefully the NSA just doesn't give a shit about my information. The fact that they have capacity if I later become some kind of radical or a radical in the eyes of whoever inherits this fucking ridiculous security apparatus, that I might be considered a radical in those circumstances, is what I think terrifies people who are thinking about this.

Nolan and co-producer Greg Plageman aren't as interested in the information being revealed by Edward Snowden as he is in the public reaction. One of the key elements of the show is playing around with the viewer's concept of privacy. Nolan continued:

”The reason why people are comfortable with Gmail [and its text-scanning advertising system] is because it's not being read by people. It's being read by machines. Apply that to the NSA—it’s very straightforward. Americans might be comfortable with the idea that there is a piece of software that listens to their phone calls, that listens for patterns of behavior, but I think we're all extremely uncomfortable with the idea that some politicians who may or may not have been the party we voted for could pull up our phone calls and listen to them. The idea with the show from the beginning is that Finch looked at these problems, anticipated a lot of them and decided there wasn't an easy solution to it...you had to build an artificial intelligence and then you had to lock it completely away.”

In other words, protecting privacy while collecting all this data is science fiction. The chief different between the NSA and "The Machine" (described as one character as an "Orwellian nightmare") is that the Machine actually works, the creators said.

We also caught up with author and EFF fellow Cory Doctorow, who articulated why the type of people who attend Comic-Con should be concerned about the NSA’s programs. The video is a must-watch:

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Of Browncoats and intellectual property

Taking a break from surveillance science-fiction, I attended a Q&A with Joss Whedon, best known for his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers and the cult-show Firefly. Across the auditorium, I spotted this clever hat worn by Dallas Bloom, and I pounced on him as soon as he was outside.

Comic-Con infamously serves as a sort of black-market of unlicensed merchandise, with independent creators riffing and mashing-up the gamut of pop-culture icons. At previous conventions, one of the most prominent articles was the “Jayne Hat,” a hideous orange knitted beanie that the most macho character on Firefly received in a care package from his mother.

For years, independent knitters have offered their versions of the hats online through sites like Etsy. But this spring, Fox began sending cease-and-desist notices to protect the exclusivity of the official, licensed version of the hats sold by ThinkGeek. Consequently, there were noticeably fewer hats at Comic-Con. Also noticeable: Even though ThinkGeek had a booth, it wasn’t actually offering Jayne’s Hats for sale. Sorry Firefly fans.

We met up with Dwight Bragdon of the non-profit Firefly fan organization, California Browncoats, who lamented the impact on the fandom.  Some creators continue to sell the hats, now labeled as “cunning hats” or “not Jayne hats,” groups like the California Browncasts are feeling the chill.

“While our organization was not targeted during the shakedown, we had some internal discussions on what it would mean for us to sell Jayne hats,” Bragdon said. "We were a bit divided on the subject, but ultimately we decided that we would fulfill our current commitments from our knitters and stop selling the hats after we are out of stock.”

Bragdon bought three different Jayne-style hats, including the official one, to compare. He concluded that his favorite was the one sold by an Etsy creator who goes by the name “Ma Cobb,” after the character’s mother. With a homemade feel to it, the added value was in how the seller boxed it up like a true space shipment, with a hand written note from Ma Cobb. The official version, Bragdon said, was high quality, but it just didn’t fit his head as well.

When I spoke to Doctorow, he expressed a unique take. Certainly, the folks behind Firefly want to make money off their intellectual property, but the current system for licensing trademarked material is a lose-lose-lose proposition. The trademark holder is losing out on potential revenues, the independent knitters aren’t able to express themselves through craft work, and the fans aren’t able to get ahold of the goods they desire. It isn’t worth the hourly rate of the corporate lawyer who would draw up licensing contracts with producers who only sell a small quantity of hats, Doctorow said. Instead companies like Fox should consider creating streamlined system for permitting small batch sales, whereby the independent producer cuts in Fox at a greater percentage than the deal Fox strikes with the official licensee.

That way, it’s shiny for everyone.


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