We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual for a surveillance stateRecent news has revealed what many already suspected – that we are (or are about to become), a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all ready to be a surveillance state.

The kind of surveillance that was previously only in the realm of dystopian fiction has been revealed to not only be possible, but to be taking place right under our very noses, without our knowledge, our consent, or what we would consider proper oversight.

The thing is, we’ve been headed in this direction for a long time – companies have effectively been doing this for years now. What’s changed is the scope of the  surveillance, and the government’s involvement in (and use of) that surveillance.

This sort of surveillance is a by-product of the digital age we live in, and is not, by itself, a bad thing. What is bad is that government is getting deeply involved, and it is doing so very quickly, and without a chance for public debate (or even without the public’s knowledge!).

In light of the seeming inevitability of increased surveillance and data collection, and to prevent the absolutely certain slide into despotism and a de-facto police state, you need deep, fundamental protections against misuse of data – and such protections need to be built in, from the start – they are not the sort of thing that can be added on afterwards.

Technology is progressing so rapidly that our laws simply cannot keep up – even the ways we create laws is still largely stuck in the last century, so that even if we try to adapt to new technology, by the time we’re done, it’s too late.

Even more worrying is that even though our laws can’t keep up with technology, that’s not stopping our governments from taking advantage of that technology – and that creates a huge problem.

In a way this is like having a really old machine that we’re trying desperately to keep running, even though the manufacturer has long since gone out of business, and the purpose for which the machine was originally built no longer exists. Instead, we keep replacing parts as they break or wear out – which takes longer and longer, since we have to rebuild them from scratch (since no one makes them anymore). We keep trying to get the machine to do things it was never intended to do – bolting on additions and making adjustments, all without really knowing how it will affect the overall functioning of the machine, or even if it’ll work the way we want it to.

Programmers in the audience will recognize this pathological pattern of behavior – any large software system will often find itself in this very same situation. And when faced with this kind of situation, often the response will be to just throw it all out and start over again from scratch.

In law, as in software, the argument against doing this is usually “why throw it away, since it still works” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” But I think it’s clear, especially in the face of new technology and what we’ve learned recently is being done with that technology, that things are in fact NOT working, and that the system IS broken.

doubleplusungood (1984)We either need to start over, or more practically, immediately begin reforming the ways we deal with technology – from the ground up. The pace at which we adapt needs to keep up with the pace at which technology changes – the way we debate laws, the way we vote, the protections & systems needed to prevent abuse – all of these things need to be updated, and they need to be updated in a hurry.

Until our laws are fundamentally overhauled to provide the same kind of deeply embedded protections in this digital age that we previously enjoyed before computers existed, we simply are not ready to be a surveillance state.

That such a surveillance state is being created, before we are ready for it, is deeply disturbing and either needs to be stopped right now, or a concerted effort to reform our laws needs to happen, yesterday.

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.

There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.

uk anti-terrorist hotline billboardThe problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)

People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.

And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).

Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).

Finally, can  you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.

I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.

Ten Years, Zero Progress

Ten years ago on this day, everyone in the whole United States – and, to a somewhat lesser degree, the rest of the world – all came together because of a terrible tragedy. We were all united on that day.

Fast forward 10 years, and you can see that very nearly all of that solidarity has gone right down the drain. If anything, we’ve become even more isolated and fragmented than we were before.

The most recent example (that I can think of) is the dreadfully childish bickering and last-minute compromise regarding the “raising the national debt limit” issue. With the threat of the entire country defaulting on its national debt looming, the best we could do was bicker and argue and refuse to do the obviously necessary thing until we were assured that our particular special interest group was not adversely affected by whatever solution was put forward. This is hardly the “united we stand” mentality that sprung up immediately after the events of 9/11.

Instead of a strong stance of “what’s best for the country as a whole,” we’ve fallen back on greedy individual power grabs – along the lines of “give me what I want, and screw everyone else.”

Instead of a strong, bold stance for freedom and liberty in the face of terrible adversity, we’ve instead become afraid of our own shadow, giving up any fundamental rights and spending any amount of money, so long as it’s “for security” (which has almost universally been “for a false sense of security”).

On this tenth anniversary of the events of 9/11/2001, I can’t help but look back at the past 10 years and think that we could have done better – we should have done better.

We can build memorials, give speeches, and make “remembering” videos all we like, but it is how we act that will truly be remembered.

I hope everyone can take this tenth anniversary to stop for a moment and reflect on how we’ve changed in these past 10 years, and to remember what it really meant to be united – to put aside differences in the face of the greater good – and consider what a powerful thing that is.

There will be a lot of appeals to patriotism and national pride today, and if that means anything to you, please take a moment to really consider the meaning behind the phrase “united we stand, divided we fall.”

9/11 is ten years behind us now – it’s time to stop being afraid, stop fighting amongst ourselves, stand strong, make the hard (but necessary) choices, and move forward into the future as a truly United States of America.

Trust No One

There have been a lot of changes since 9/11 – but what’s surprising is that all of these changes were made by us, and not by terrorists. As a society, we’ve devolved to an absurdly unhealthy level of paranoia, where anyone and everyone is out to get us. Everyone is a suspect, a “potential terrorist,” and no one (well, very, very, very few people) are ever fully “proven” innocent and trusted completely.

This video gives a good overview of what I’m talking about.

Suspect America from CIR on Vimeo.

If you don’t believe me, grab a DSLR camera and go take some photos of trains (if you like trains), or maybe a big, beautiful bridge near you, or something else like that, and see how far you get.

It’s sad to think that we’ve done this entirely to ourselves – all because of our irrational fear.

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the events of 9/11, I really do think it’s time to put the brakes on this sort of thing, to scale it way back, and remember that we don’t need to always be afraid, and that even if people are out to “get us,” they’re not the bogey men, and they aren’t going to pop out of our closets at night and blow up every bridge, airport, [insert movie-plot infrastructure target here] in the country all at once… and that it follows from this that we don’t need to have security guards checking the IDs of every hipster photographer or tourist who takes a picture from off the beaten path, or anyone who aims a camera lens at an airport, and so on and so forth.

It takes willpower though to do all this – and I’m afraid all our national willpower has been sucked up by other things (wars, failing economies, etc.).

Many years from now, this time period may be looked back upon as the self-inflicted Great Failure of American society… but maybe, just maybe, we can change things.

We’ll see.

Protecting Them, Not You

There is a disturbing trend in politics and lawmaking that has developed over the last 10 years – one which I think everyone really needs to take a long, hard look at.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of noise made over “security” and “protecting” and the like. But if you look more closely at what has actually been done, you’ll see that largely the laws, policies, wars, agencies, etc., that have been put into place are not actually here to protect you.

Instead, these things which have been done in the name of “security” actually have a quite different aim – they are designed explicitly to protect the people who came up with the law/policy/etc., not the “people” at large. Instead, you are simply meant to feel secure, without actually being secure.

I like to call this sort of thing “CYA syndrome,” or “cover your ass syndrome.” Because that’s really all it is.

Let’s take a look at some of the many, many things that have been done in the last 10 years:

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Supposed to: unify departments to increase information sharing so important information about legitimate threats are not missed
  • Actually: creates a huge bureaucratic monstrosity that is less responsive than the previous individual agencies.

War in Iraq

  • Supposed to: remove a highly dangerous dictator and get rid of a hiding place for terrorists
  • Actually: removed a not-quite-as-dangerous dictator and created more hiding places for terrorists (and inspired many more people to become terrorists because of resentment)


  • Supposed to: unify ID requirements across the country and make it impossible for anyone (not just terrorists) to get a fake ID, thus stopping them from ever being able to get on a plane, into a government building, etc.
  • Actually: unified ID requirements across some of the country, at huge cost to the states themselves, made the whole process much, much more annoying and difficult for the 99.999% of normal people, did not stop people from getting on planes with nefarious intentions.

Increased Airport Security

  • Supposed to: prevent another 9/11
  • Actually: hassles the traveling public via scope creep (always adding more restrictions based on the last failed attempt, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11)

All of these things are not so much to achieve a goal in and of themselves (if they even can), but rather to give those in power something to point to in case everything goes wrong. “We did this,” they’ll say, “so you can’t blame me.” Or, alternatively, before anything has gone wrong, those in power can point at these things and say “see? I’m tough, I’m doing things.” This is related to something called the “politician’s fallacy,” which says:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, we must do it.

This of course results in poorly thought out solutions for urgent problems – sound familiar?

But there’s no incentive to properly think out solutions for these kinds of problems. Fast answers and swift action are all that matter in our short-attention-span world; nevermind that they are often wrong or contrary to our long-term success.

What is particularly infuriating about this is that nobody* seems to realize that this is going on.

As we come up on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope that everyone will step back and take a good, long, hard look at what’s been going on these past years – because we’re way past due for one. We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes for far too long.

* Well, a sufficient majority, anyway.