Systematic Surveillance Will Eat Itself

As the digitally connected world grapples with the dystopic reality that our overreaching governments are using technology tools ostensibly designed to increase our convenience to up their own — by peeking into our business, apparently regardless of whether they have probable cause to lift the lid — it’s worth taking a step back from current snowballing concerns about technology eroding privacy. That’s not to say there are no reasons to be concerned; there absolutely are. But there is reason for positivity too.

New technologies typically trigger moral panics. Whether it’s the invention of the printing press; the telephone or radio and TV; high speed travel; the electrification of homes — you name it, new inventions have been marshalling societal doomsday merchants for centuries. Probably forever (let’s not forget Socrates’ concerns that written words would degrade our ability to remember and intelligently interrogate knowledge).

Likewise the increasingly pervasive interconnectness afforded by the Internet and the proliferation of connected device types has led to plenty of concerned social commentary already — whether it’s fear that social networking is making us more narcissistic; or kids more vulnerable to bullying; or encouraging the rise of misogynistic or racist or extremist viewpoints. The scaremongering goes on.

And now we can apparently add mass government surveillance programs to the file ‘bad stuff technology is doing’. But like most of the things on that list, that’s a simplification which ignores the fact technology is merely a tool that supports multiple applications.

Now there’s no doubt that the traceability and stackability of digital communications and interactions has and is enabling mass surveillance of citizens — making it easier for governments (and of course companies like Facebook — which are now, in any case, effectively the outsourced, data-harvesting arms of government agencies like the NSA) to spy on the stuff we do online. Our digital traces can be captured and stored – apparently ad infinitum — because storage has become so cheap, and is only getting cheaper. Technology allows even the most apparently incidental/trivial data-points to be siphoned off and joined to all our other dots, to flesh out dynamic maps of our digital lives — just because it’s possible to do that.

You could even argue that technology’s recording abilities/capacity encourage a ‘just in case’ mind-set which says ‘store now, data-mine later if the need arises’. (Or, in the business context, ‘grab everything now, figure out what’s needed to monetise later’.) That of course skews the relationship between the state and the individual – apparently allowing for an individual to be held to account in perpetuity, regardless of whether they are justifiably under suspicion. We are all pre-emptively judged sinners if surveillance is systematic. Judgement Day has been digitally reimagined as an all-day recurring calendar event. How quaint — by comparison — appears the Biblical equivalent which only occurs once, as a final reckoning, at the very end of time.

But there’s something else to remember here too. Just as our digital interactions and online behaviour can be tracked, parsed and analysed for problematic patterns, pertinent keywords and suspicious connections, so too can the behaviour of governments. Technology is a double-edged sword – which means it’s also capable of lifting the lid on the machinery of power-holding institutions like never before. In the case of technology-enabled mass surveillance, the spy becomes the spied upon – as happened the moment Edward Snowden leaked data on the NSA’s surveillance programs.

Ok, so it required a human whistleblower to decide to step forward and shine a light on those dark goings on. And each such reveal is typically only a snapshot of extant processes  — i.e. which the whistleblower had access to up to the time the leak was made public. So it’s far more partial than the data which flows, blood-like, through the pipelines of the surveillance systems apparently monitoring us. But the point stands: the same infrastructure that allows government agencies to capture data on any digitally connected person, also allowed Snowden to comprehend the extent of  the NSA’s surveillance, and take away enough evidence to put that knowledge in the public domain. Technology allows for bigger, more significant data leaks; makes whistleblowing easier too.

Wikileaks is another (obvious) example of how technology-enabled data leaks can hold the powerful to account by making their actions and processes more transparent than they would otherwise be (whether Wikileaks has overreached its own power-debunking role is a whole other debate, however). Another smaller example would be the data leaked on UK MPs’ expenses in 2009 – data that was ultimately sold to journalists, who then made the story public. In that case journalists had previously tried to legally obtain MPs’ expenses information under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and had their attempts rebuffed. The establishment closed off sanctioned avenues of journalistic investigation. Circumventing that required two things: a human whistleblower, and cheap and easy digital storage technology that allowed enough data to be taken out of a closed system to reveal systematic abuse of a taxpayer-funded expenses system.

The wider point is that if governments are (mis)using technology to spy on us, they can’t escape the countervailing reality: the omnipresent risk of that same technology-powered all-seeing eye being turned back on them – spilling their secrets for us to judge. And there’s the cause for hope. Technology can certainly allow governments (and companies) to overreach and infringe on our rights as citizens (or users) – it is a powerful tool, after all. But, in the right hands, this tool can also reveal in microscopic detail what governing institutions and powerful companies are up to. The NSA’s extensive apparatus of surveillance may thus ultimately reach so far it ends up checking its own advance by forcing a publicly shamed government to avoid democratic censure by policing itself.

In other words, so long as there are whistleblowers like Snowden — people of conscience — then surveillance systems will end up eating themselves. Or that’s the hope.

Snowden’s leaks have led directly to Obama publicly announcing a review of the NSA’s processes. The President can deny it all he wants — and of course he has — but there is no doubt these reforms have been announced as a direct result of the NSA’s processes being made public, which in turn has piled domestic and international pressure on the Obama Administration. And thrown a negative cloud of suspicion over U.S. technology companies — the collateral damage of a policy that lumps the rest of the world into a catch-all category labelled ‘potential terrorists’. Bad for business means bad for government — a situation that cranks up the pressure for a policy rethink.

Likewise, in the commercial context, the rise of ephemeral sharing and pro-privacy movements like do-not-track — powered by startups like Snapchat and free-thinkers like DuckDuckGo — puts disruptive business pressure on the overreaching excesses of data-harvesting giants like Facebook and Google that want to grab and store every little thing we do. Startups can and do play a role in checking inroads into our privacy by offering alternatives that don’t demand we give up so much — which in turn can help to amend the behaviour of dominant players.

So, while digital technologies can be press-ganged into the service of totalitarianism, and used to trample the rights of free societies, it only takes a few free-thinkers to apply technology’s reach and capacity in the opposite direction to fight the creep of Stasi-like systems. Snooping and leaking are really just flip sides of the same coin. Snowden is therefore much more than a patriot; right now he’s the better angel of America’s nature.

[Image by pheezy via Flickr]