We’re Not Ready to be a Surveillance State

Recent news has revealed what many already suspected – we have become a de-facto surveillance state. The problem is: we are not at all 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.

Citizen Surveillance

Thoughtful comments on the idea of citizens keeping tabs on their police & government, instead of only the other way around.

Found this great quote over at Slashdot today:

“The whole point of our post-Enlightenment traditions in the West has been the understanding that Authority, if left unchecked, will naturally tend towards abuse. The Police, in all their forms throughout the ages, have always been the most visible aspect of abusive Authority. The ability of the citizen to make his fellow citizens aware of abuses by Authority is key to the preservation of liberal democratic values. If you give the Authorities any sort of free pass on this, you simply invite them to do their worst. If you catch them doing their worst (ie. we just had the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State Shootings), then there is some capacity to assure some degree of justice, and more importantly for the Authorities to moderate their own behaviors.”

This comment was posted in response to a story about how police were fighting to keep from being recorded by ordinary citizens.

I’ve posted about this before, and apparently this sort of thing even has a name: “Sousveillance.” The idea that if your government has the right to monitor you, then you also should have the right to monitor your government.

This sort of stuff seems like it would be self-evident – I mean, how could you argue against this? But apparently it’s not, and apparently people do argue against it – in many cases successfully.

It surprises me that, generally speaking, most people would not deny the wisdom of the statement “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet when put in a position of power, a person who just agreed to that statement would most likely add, “except for me.”

It seems to me that the very definition of corruption is when those in power carve exceptions in the Rule of Law which apply only to themselves.

Vigilance – that is the price we must continually pay. “Who watches the watchers,” and so on.

And, of course: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Lessons we still haven’t learned from 1984

Looking at George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ and seeing some uncomfortable parallels to our modern world.

There are 3 lessons (out of many) that it seems like we still haven’t learned from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Briefly, they are:

  • Pervasive government surveillance is bad.
  • Censorship/rewriting history is bad.
  • Constant fear of an unseen external enemy is a great way to control people.

Sound familiar?

Another way to put it is that we have learned these lessons, but that we just chose to ignore them. Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

Pervasive government surveillance is bad. Specifically, the kind of pervasive surveillance where: the government might be watching you at any time; you have no idea if you’re being watched; and there is little or no oversight.

Think about how different your daily behavior – and I’m talking about all of your behavior, from the moment you get out of bed in the morning to when you go to sleep at night – would be if you knew that someone was watching you every single moment of every single day.

Remember: some surveillance is fine, on a small scale, but ubiquitous surveillance by a single controlling entity is absolutely not OK.

For a free society to function, people need to be “secure from unreasonable searches and seizures,” which also implies having a bit of privacy. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is also quite important – but if everyone is under surveillance, there’s a sort of presumption of guilt in that, which implies that everyone is guilty, they just haven’t been caught on tape yet (but they will be!).

Censorship/rewriting history is bad. Censorship on its own is bad enough, but once you start censoring non-fiction, you are effectively re-writing history (or the historical record, anyway).

For a free society to function, the people must be able to find out the truth. When things are censored or re-written, it becomes impossible to find out the truth (as most people understand the meaning of “truth”). Instead, “truth” becomes what the censor believes should be the truth, instead of what actually is (or was). Drawing from the novel 1984 again, this is more along the lines of what O’Brien says the truth is (i.e., whatever The Party says it is) as opposed to what Winston believes it is (an external thing that can’t be altered or covered up).

Which version of “truth” would you prefer?

Constant fear of an unseen enemy is a great way to control people. Some people will by now be getting tired of me harping on this point again and again, but it really is the most important point we can draw from 1984. In fact, this is one of the founding principles of the dystopian government described in the book – that it doesn’t matter who you are at war with, as long as there is always an enemy to direct your hate at, then people can be easily controlled and will willingly go along with things they would otherwise morally oppose.

Parallels to Today

All three of the points I’ve made above can be seen in greater or lesser degrees in our society today. We may not have the telescreens from 1984, but we do have security cameras almost everywhere – in stores, in banks, in malls, in restaurants, in public buildings, in public places, and on public roads. On top of all the cameras, our phones have GPS built in, our cameras can “tag” photos with GPS coordinates (telling people where we were when we took the photo), web sites can use location-awareness to pin down your location (generally accurate, but not pinpoint accurate… yet), and of course our phones and email can be tapped/record/read by police/government agents at any time, without our knowledge, and often without any sort of civil or judicial oversight. There is a famous quote by the Englishman William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from 200 years ago that is still applicable today: If society has regressed to where power alone is sufficient for government action, we have a police state.

Fortunately, at least here in the US, censorship and the re-writing of history has not come as far as it has in some countries (e.g., China). However, that’s not to say that we’re not on our way towards stricter censorship. Politicians, political pundits, and others will frequently reverse their position on an issue, and then deny that they ever held any other position but the one they have right now. If this doesn’t strike anyone as a perfect example of Doublethink, then I don’t know what would. And once people start thinking that way, it is inevitable that they will want to re-write history to match what they think… and on that path lies madness.

As for the constant fear aspect, well, I hardly need to provide examples, considering that we’ve had a constant “enemy” for nearly 80 years now. It started, in large part, back in World War II, with the Nazis – who were of course quite real! But after that, our fear shifted to the Soviet Union and Communism – so much so that we started turning in people around us for fear that they were communists, and accusing people left and right of deviating from the “party line.” (Just read up on McCarthyism for a chilling look at how fear of an unseen enemy made people behave.) During that time, not agreeing with the ruling class’s political beliefs was enough to get you thrown in jail. Again, does any of this sound familiar? Because it should, seeming as it does to be drawn almost verbatim from George Orwell’s novel!

Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to find something else to fear, and it took us a little while to find it – but find it we did, under the increasingly broad definition of “terrorism.” There’s a lot of parallels between our old imagined enemies of the communist era and our new imagined “terrorist” enemies:

  • They are from a foreign country, naturally (one that few of us have been too, so it seems even more foreign to most of us – because “foreigners are scary”).
  • They could be anywhere – even hiding in plain sight! They might even be someone you already know! (“Be afraid of everyone, even your friends.”)
  • They could strike us at any time! (“Always be afraid.”)
  • Not content with the explanation of “some people are fighting against us because they disagree very strongly with us,” we’ve somehow morphed things into some sort of EPIC BATTLE, because it’s our ideals and principles against theirs, and of course we have to win because THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
  • If you disagree with the idea that this is an EPIC BATTLE which we MUST FIGHT and MUST WIN because there is NO OTHER CHOICE IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE then you are branded as UN-AMERICAN.

Given all of these parallels, you’d think at least someone would maybe stop and point them out and sort of deflate the rhetoric being tossed around to justify all of the above – but no, sadly, no.

In the end, most people are more interested in other things – maybe the economy, or more likely what was on Lost or The Bachelor last night. So we just ignore what’s going on, forget the history lessons we were taught in school (assuming it’s still being taught in school – I worry sometimes), and march towards a future that is, sadly, just like the past… because we refused to learn from it.

Sousveillance

This is encouraging:

Now a countervailing storyline is starting to get some traction in real life: the increasing citizen use of technology to “watch from below.” The practice has been called “sousveillance,” a word that comes the French word “sous” (from below) with the word “viller” (to watch). Instead of Big Brother using a panopticon of surveillance to exercise total, unquestioned control, the commoners are using cheap, portable technologies to monitor and publicize the behavior of Power. The commons is sprouting its own eyes – and its own means of self-defense, political organizing and reclamation of democracy.

In contrast to the usual abuses of government authority and surveillance I usually write about here, this is like a breath of fresh air – and something I think is very good. If a government can monitor its people, the people aught to be able to monitor the government.

The Roots of Government Surveillance

This great article goes into great detail how the current surveillance society came to be, and looks at the historical origins of the entire process – and the debate that continues to this day. It is as enlightening as it is well-written.

No one should believe that real-time government surveillance of the communications network is an idea born of the 9/11 attacks or that it results solely from the Bush administration’s aggrandizing of executive power. The legal arguments that the government has asserted to support increased surveillance of digital space were first put forth in 1994, under a Democratic president, and they had little to do with the threat of Islamic extremism.

All the more reason to continue to fight for our own privacy rights at every turn – because by its very nature, Government (with a capital G) will scoop up every last bit of privacy you have if you don’t defend them. And before you know it, you’ll feel… well, a picture speaks louder than words:

1984 poster

“1984 was NOT supposed to be an instruction manual.”

No, it was not – but it seems like we’re following it as if it were.