Enlightened surveillance?

New York City contemplates using aerial drones for surveillance purposes, while North Korea buys thousands of cameras to spy on its impoverished population. Britain has so many cameras they cease being newsworthy. The stories multiply – it is trivial to note we are moving towards a surveillance society.

In an earlier post, I suggested surrendering on surveillance might be the least bad option – of all likely civil liberty encroachments,  this seemed the less damaging and hardest to resist. But that’s an overly defensive way of phrasing it – if ubiquitous surveillance and lack of privacy are the trends of the future, we shouldn’t just begrudgingly accept them, but demand that society gets the most possible out of them. In this post, I’m not going to suggest how to achieve enlightened surveillance (a 360 degree surveillance would be a small start, for instance), but just outline some of the positive good we could get from it. We all know the negatives; but what good could come from corporations, governments and neighbours being able to peer continually into your bedroom (and efficiently process that data)? In the ideal case, how could we make it work for us?

  • Less crime. This is the point that always get trotted out by authoritarians, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Universal surveillance would dramatically reduce crime and considerably simplify court cases: instead of interrogating witnesses, simply play the tape. If everything goes well, we’ll also see a reduction in legal hypocrisy and maybe even in laws: it’s hard to ban weed if most people smoke it – and we have the tapes to prove it.
  • Less police. This is the converse to the preceding  We wouldn’t need to maintain a large police force; rational criminals would find other jobs, and a small rapid reaction force would be enough to deal with the occasional irrational outbreak. This goes for all the other apparatus of the security state: no need for pat-downs and searches at airports, if nobody has the privacy to build a bomb in the first place.
  • Smaller armies, no arms races. As for individuals, so for states: with reliable intel on each-other’s forces, states could reduce their arsenals and their forces – maybe even get rid of nuclear weapons entirely. As long as countries maintained the industrial capacity to re-arm rapidly if needed, they could be satisfied with a minimal force and a keen eye on their neighbours.
  • Less chance of private Armageddon. With total surveillance, there’s less chance of a lone individual creating a disaster, through an engineered bacteria or a dangerous AI. Indeed, this may be the only way of dealing with these threats.
  • Less technology restrictions and DRM. A lot of technology restrictions exist solely to prevent the stupid or dangerous from misbehaving – but all the rest of us have to live with the them. With total and efficient surveillance, no need for this – the dangerous can be stopped individually, so the rest of us don’t have to put up with idiotic restrictions. Similarly, no need for invasive and crippling DRM. If you copied a file for private use, versus publicly distributing it, this could be distinguished by re-running the tape; no need to ban both behaviours with a heavy truncheon.
  • Less corruption. And what if we watched the watchers? There would certainly be less corruption and lying among public officials and the powerful in general. Even if they tried to shield themselves from surveillance, this could quickly become untenable: the holes in the recordings would become too blatant, and smart algorithms could deduce a lot from the rest of the available data.
  • Epidemiology and research for good. Marketers and others could use this vast database for nefarious purposes. But we can use it for positive purposes as well: tracking down epidemics as they emerge, quickly establishing the dangerous (or benign) effect of various pollutants, having a much better grasp as to which social policies work best – maybe even adjusting them in real time. Knowing how religions or corporations treat their adherents or clients would force them into better behaviour. We could pre-screen dubious romantic partners.
  • Reduced prejudices. Now, we hate people that we barely know, making unjustified generalisations. In a transparent society, we less likely to hate them if we can see where they’re coming from, and our generalisations are more likely to be accurate.
  • People could become more pro-social? This is more contentious and arguable, but we should at least consider that possibility that people who know that their words and deeds are recorded, would behave in more pro-social and honest ways. There’s an ever-present risk of enforcing conformity, but it’s also possible that the gap between our public and private persona, far from granting us well-needed liberty, actually condemns our social interactions to hypocrisy and pretence. A high dose of transparency might be just the thing to increase our acceptance of marginal behaviours – people will no longer be able to pretend that it doesn’t happen, and will have to embrace and defend it.
  • No passwords. This could be the most useful benefit from constant surveillance: no need for passwords or other identifiers, wherever you go, everything just knows that it’s you!

Before people start commenting about all the dangers of surveillance – I know. But we’d be lying if we didn’t accept that there could be large upsides, too. At least that way, we could figure out what kind of surveillance society we should be fighting for, if preventing it from emerging is a quixotic as it seems today.

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35 Responses to Enlightened surveillance?

  • criticalbill says:

    fail

  • Bob Knaus says:

    We used to have something similar in many countries… a widespread belief in an omniscient Almighty who would soon dispense justice to all. “Every word, and every deed, shall shortly be made known” as the old hymn put it. Maybe technology will effectively replace religion yet!

  • kenneth says:

    Lets not forget that a Panopticon is a punitive instrument designed to create fear, resignation, and a culture of untrustworthiness. Who controls the surveillance and for what purpose? As Solzhenitsyn states – ‘Unlimited power in the hands of limited people will always lead to cruelty. Making anyone live in a Panopticon is systematic abuse, torture and cruelty founded on a misguided principle of efficiency. If i was being kind, i would say this article has not been thought out very well. Either that or it is designed to provoke.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      At no point did I advocate total surveillance. Zilch, nada.

      But we’re blinding and weakening ourselves if we pretend there aren’t any upsides to total surveillance. Why do so many (myself included, alas) charge over to Facebook to shred our own privacy? Because we’re getting something useful our of it (or perceive that we are). And when the push for total surveillance comes, it won’t likely be a “push” – the cameras will come first, with legal restrictions, of course, and then some people will find it useful to never have to put in a pin number of password, and will click yes on whatever form enables “the use of my recorded data for this purpose (and this purpose only)”. This will become popular, then widespread, then accepted, then ubiquitous – and we’ll be in total surveillance. All because of things that people wanted at the time.

      Or maybe it’ll be someone being stalked or bullied (in the flesh), demanding that that the cameras around town record him continually, for his own safety. Or cities recording their (potentially corrupt) cops continually. But if we pretend that there are no upsides at all to surveillance, and we resist people even mentioning them, them we’re going to be blindsided by those developments.

      • aaron says:

        We should note that the tendency of our psychologies to favor short-term benefit/loss consideration over long-term means that blithely saying we ‘get something’ out of our exchange with Facebook is oversimplified. If we all knew the true value of the trade and could perceive it rationally, there are lots of reasons to believe the social network would have many fewer participants in its current form.

        While it is valuable to inspect the possible benefits of total surveillance, the commenter above is right: It does not exist in a vacuum, it will be created with purpose, and there is every reason to believe that purpose will be to continue to aggregate power into the hands of the powerful

        • Stuart Armstrong says:

          >If we all knew the true value of the trade and could perceive it rationally, there are lots of reasons to believe the social network would have many fewer participants in its current form.

          I’m not so sure. A lot of the benefits of privacy are communal (general freedom for more marginal beliefs, which it is of benefit for everyone to preserve), while a lot of the advantages of Facebook are personal. So this might be another “tragedy of the commons” situation.

          >While it is valuable to inspect the possible benefits of total surveillance, the commenter above is right: It does not exist in a vacuum, it will be created with purpose, and there is every reason to believe that purpose will be to continue to aggregate power into the hands of the powerful

          Which still doesn’t tell us if the best strategy is to oppose it rabidly or reform it. Or conceivably both, but that might not be feasible.

          • LittleGreenLeaf says:

            @Stuart Armstrong

            “I’m not so sure. A lot of the benefits of privacy are communal … while a lot of the advantages of Facebook are personal. So this might be another “tragedy of the commons” situation.”

            Don’t forget, that the internet as a whole, and facebook in particular, is an incredible recent innovation, and, if there is a difference in timescales for the dynamics of major positive and negative drivers as @aaron arguments for, there might simply not have been enough time for the negative effects to be evident on a broad scale yet.

            In my region for example, the amount of attempted identity thefts and frauds, have since around 2005 increased in the range of 500 – 1000%, and now effects roughly 5 to 10% of the population on a yearly basis. The Police have also reported and public warned people to tell friends on facebook that they are going away on hollidays, since thiefs seems to use this data to identify and target victims in a systematic manner.

            These are simple and obvious enough, but only to underscore the argument. It is easy to visualise many more such deliterious effects, that are neither criminal, and much more nefarious and destructive.

            “Which still doesn’t tell us if the best strategy is to oppose it rabidly or reform it. Or conceivably both, but that might not be feasible.”

            I am curious, what classes of arguments and evidence do you propose to use to select between these alternatives?

            • Stuart Armstrong says:

              >The Police have also reported and public warned people to tell friends on facebook that they are going away on hollidays, since thiefs seems to use this data to identify and target victims in a systematic manner.

              Hum. That seems like something that could cut the other way too – if credit card companies had access to your Facebook details, they would be more likely to catch frauds.

              But you’re right, it’s too early to say how these things will go.

              >I am curious, what classes of arguments and evidence do you propose to use to select between these alternatives?

              Nothing yet. I’m at the very beginning of looking into this, so I’m simply trying to not prejudge anything, and try and figure out the best way of going about this.

  • I’m going to have to disagree with this rosy view, in that even many of these ‘upsides’ aren’t real or aren’t good.

    Less crime?
    We have already had something similar to the panopticon for most of human history – the village. What we found there was not ‘less crime’, but that more things that were seen as offensive or a threat to social harmony were made into crimes. Sexual or religious transgressions for example. We had to wait for the relative anonymity of urbanisation to gain our individual freedom.

    Less corruption and reduced prejudices?
    Indian villages, to give a contemporaneous example, are full of viscous prejudice, abuse of power, and abuse of minorities (women, lower/outcastes, minority religions, the poor), suggesting that everyone being able to watch everyone else is not in itself either neutral or an equalising force, but rather follows existing social gradients. It is often a multiplier of the existing power arrangements and their justice/injustice.

    People could become more pro-social?
    Another word for this is self-censorship, generated by what Mill would call the tyranny of the majority. If we can no longer choose how and when to present ourselves to society, we must remake ourselves as ‘pro-social’ all the way down, a drastic Rousseauian kind of solution to the problem of public hypocrisy that resolves the tension by eliminating the private mind. I believe with Mill that a liberal society – a society of free individuals – is the best society and that is not at all the same thing as a harmonious community where everyone has to be nice.

    • Navin Kumar says:

      Why is everyone on this thread missing *the point* of this?

      Crime: As a matter of fact there are significantly fewer thefts, rapes, muggings etc in villages (i.e rural areas) even today, which is an unambiguously good thing. This must *on balance* be weighed against the costs of such a move namely, reduced religious/sexual freedom. On net, this might be a bad thing. But we shouldn’t deny that less rape is a good thing.

      Less prejudices: I agree with you on this.

      Less corruption: In India (resident here) corruption occurs primarily *because* we don’t know who is and who isn’t taking a bribe. There are strong social sanctions against it (see the recent Anna Hazare protests) but the problem is information.

      Pro-social: self-censorship isn’t * unambiguously* bad. It is widely considered distasteful to express racist, casteist, anti-women (see the recent converage of people’s responses to the Delhi gang rape case) remarks and this might reduce that, actually helping create a moer inclusive culture. This has to be *weighed* against the fact that we become more conformist. It may well be that the upside is greater than the downside.

      Repeat: it may well be that the downside trumps the upside. This is not a trivial view. But ignoring the upside, denying that it is there at all is silly.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      I generally agree with your case about self-censorship – I think that would be a huge cost of total surveillance. However, we should admit that the case isn’t a certainty – we don’t really know how a large diverse society with competing values would adjust to total transparency. There seems to have been a great increase in tolerance of previously “deviant” behaviours (eg homosexuality) caused at least partially by greater visibility. So I think that bears looking into more.

      I think your village example is misleading, as that is dominated by a social dynamic and a perceived uniformity of values. Adding total surveillance to an urban environment is a completely different thing. In fact, I’m far more likely to be observed, every moment of every day, in an urban environment than a rural one. The point is that people in villages care what I do, those in cities generally don’t. So we can’t extrapolate from village behaviour to transparent city behaviour.

  • LittleGreenLeaf says:

    I find the position the author take here very unsettling, and can also only agree with the various observations presented by previous commentators.

    Should we give up our resistance, because the opposition seems to formidable or the outcome to invitable?

    Leaving the wider and deeper philosophical and practical implications to one side, I also believe many of the presumably potential positive outcomes presented in this text have already amassed significant empirical evidence within the security community that seems to refute such conclusions, and some have serious probabilistic, practical and logical flaws attached to them.

    It is perhaps also a benefit from having grown up in the shadow of the “iron curtain”, and having first hand knowledge of experiences from personal friends, that makes much of what is stated here either to look very doubtful, from both several technical and professional viewpoints as well as from a philosophical and basic human perspective.

    This almost makes it difficult to belive whether this is truly serious, or part of an experiment or test?

    But I will treat this as a sincere and honest text, and I have replied in such manner.

    In all humility,

  • jason smith says:

    None of the possible benefits outlined in the article will really be realized, the top down management of society will lead to the complete loss of liberty. We are well on our way.

    In order to reverse the trend, people must be willing to accept the potential for risk. As it stands currently, people are willing to trade liberty for the perception of safety, this is irrational, but completely human.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    I think many people concerned about surveillance have absorbed a very strong anti-surveillance mindset that makes even considering upsides of surveillance impossible. It reminds me of how Janet Radcliffe-Richards characterised politically correct thinking in her Uehiro lectures: given that you aim at a morally good thing (in this case presumably freedom and integrity), you become averse to accepting empirical findings or arguments that disconfirm this, or even discourage attempts at investigate such things. This is an is/ought mistake: just because we want freedom and integrity doesn’t mean that surveillance cannot have positive aspects, or that we should shy away from checking the size of them.

    Overall, the actual empirical evidence for the benefits of harms of surveillance seem to be somewhat weak. The effect of CCTV on crime has been most studied, and the result seems to be that it is not super-effective (but that vested interests tend to buy even equivocal results as confirming, another relevant observation). The social conformity effects of surveillance seem to be somewhat troubling, but have not been studied deeply. So far authoritarian regimes seem to have thrived without effective surveillance, and high surveillance regimes today do not seem to reap a massive advantage from it – but that may change. Claims that total surveillance cannot be realized are typically based on social and technological assumptions that are debatable, as are the numerous slippery slope arguments being invoked by everybody.

    Deontological anti-surveillance arguments typically state that surveillance violates important rights, and hence is impermissible or at least requires very strong reasons to be acceptable. But if one accepts that kind of reasoning one should carefully look for similarly strong reasons to rights on the no surveillance side. For example, reducing existential risk (which is a threat to our lives and a form of risk we probably cannot accept) might conceivably trump individual rights to such an extent that were total surveillance actually beneficial for reducing existential risk (a big if), we should perhaps go with it. I think most of the other reasons mentioned by Stuart are far too weak to matter here, but the surveillance vs. existential risk balance seems worth taking seriously. Even if it is deeply disturbing.

  • This is one of the most grotesquely absurd pieces of lobotomized thinking I have come across in many, many years. Obviously the author does not believe that he has any rights whatsoever and that his entire being belongs to the State, as such he is nothing but a slave whose existence serves not his own mind, but the collective observers of the surveillance state he finds beneficial. Orwellian is an understatement.

  • theman says:

    how exactly will this help get rid of DRM? How are you going to video tape me illegally distributing files about the internet? Of course there are many ways to track (and cover the tracks of) this process but putting a video camera behind everyones computer seems like a silly solution to me

  • james says:

    Like the suggestion that we have armed security at elementary schools the question should be asked if it is such a great idea than why do prison have more guard than country clubs? The biggest issue I have with mass surveillance is the same problem that occurs in economy with very high production. The U.S. is a great example of this with food insecurity for nearly 2.6% of the population while while having both an unemployment rate of 8% and less than ten percent of the population working in agriculture. In the in 1930 closer to 21% of the population working in agriculture. How can one of the richest, most developed nations that exports food, with a vast majority of the working population employed have problems feeding everyone? Treating everyone fairly reduces the ability to centralize wealth, so does feeding everyone. Just by having a class that is abused you gained productivity increase by fear of being grouped with them and pride that you are not a member of that class. Do you think that copyright holders would not, sue people whom are not able to prove that their fair use is valid? With most technology some of the advantage of both practical and implementable, but other are not because of social and political conditions. The research bonus is the advantage that is most implementable as for police and crime, if the police actual saw how much crime occurs that there would be more police not less. Just like a socialist is not willing to admit the collectivism polices can reduce production or a capitalist that market system can centralize wealth reducing an economies ability to provide the basic needs of the major instead providing a higher standard of living for a few. Many times the central question is not what an action can possible accomplish but what accomplishment are the most like to materialize for that action.
    http://www.agclassroom.org/gan/timeline/farmers_land.htm
    http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/impact-of-hunger.aspx

  • Anton Krivosheyev says:

    I mostly agree with the article’s author, but before the transparent society experiment is allowed to start, there will have to be standards created and enforced:

    ★Every camera be accessible to anyone in the world.
    ★One global government (Biblical prophecy fulfillment not preferred).
    ★Multi-wavelength 360-degree camera sensors (MWCS) used, meaning that these cameras must capture not only 450nm(blue), 550nm(green), and 650nm(red) wavelengths, but also 10,000nm(infrared emitted by body heat, penetrates walls) and any other wavelengths that would be helpful, as well as have various sensors capable of analyzing in real-time DNA samples from the ambient air, in order to identify everyone with minimum error.
    ★At least one MWCS every square meter (or a few sq. meters), which while seems a bit excessive would allow for 3D computer analysis and would leave no room for questionable single-view footage interpretations.
    ★Either A) Not be allowed to be used as evidence in court or B) Only be allowed for “hard” crimes such as murder and rape.
    ★Any other changes that make sense.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >★Either A) Not be allowed to be used as evidence in court or B) Only be allowed for “hard” crimes such as murder and rape.

      I don’t think that’s a stable state. If the data is out there, the pressure to play it back is going to be enormous. Think of the accused saying “I wasn’t even there at the time of the alleged crime – please, your honour, please let them play the tape!” That would be hard to resist. And if the innocent get to play the tape, then not playing the tape is going to be seen (in many cases correctly) as an admission of guilt.

      So I think that if we have total surveillance, it will be used in court.

  • De Pietro says:

    I am trying to focus on the other aspects of the article, but I keep returning to the village and crime issue. The main issue for me is that villages have less reported crime. I can’t point to a specific paper on that, but both regional news and personal experience (from living in small towns) make it clear to me that much of the crime that happens in small communities is not reported. I do not know why exactly that happens – perhaps the victim is a friend of the thief’s sister, perhaps the rapist is an influential local businessman or priest, or perhaps one doesn’t want to be known by everyone as “the one who was assaulted/beaten by the husband”. It is also quite possible that crimes are not reported because the police station is too far away.

    If this is true, we could then assume that a sudden increase in the surveillance of that specific village would actually reveal that more crimes are being committed than before – even though the actual crime rate would be the same, or even lower. Statistically, there would be a correlation between the implementation of surveillance and increase of the crime rate, and surveillance would be seen as a bad thing.

    Well, you see why that specific issue got me thinking. The matter of perceived crime rate, actual crime rate, and reported crime rate is complex and certainly deserve more thought. If, as it seems, the number reported crimes is significantly lower than actual crimes (even in large cities), then the excessive use of surveillance could backfire, since, as I mentioned, journalists and statisticians would make a correlation between the incresased surveillance and the increased crime rate.

    • Anton Krivosheyev says:

      Ultimately, this is the main issue with the transparent society approach. It simply will not work unless several major social changes are made worldwide.

      If/when implemented, then the law system will first have to be changed no matter what. Most likely what is considered crime will have to be reduced to a misdemeanor or general civil disobedience (petty theft, illegal drug abuse, etc.) and either charge a small fine or simply add a negative score on your “good citizen” online status. However, unlike the glimpse of this technology demonstrated in the Demolition Man movie, our citations will probably delivered to us via e-mail. So, no, unfortunately you will not be able to wipe your ass with it to emphasize your disapproval.

  • LittleGreenLeaf says:

    @Anton Krivosheyev

    “Ultimately, this is the main issue with the transparent society approach. It simply will not work unless several major social changes are made worldwide.”

    I agree, or, the internet and geographical zones (countries) need to be segmented in relation to what level of transparancy exist in that zone.

    “Most likely what is considered crime will have to be reduced to a misdemeanor or general civil disobedience (petty theft, illegal drug abuse, etc.)”

    Which begs the question, who will decide exactly what constitute a crime? And how to handle different opinions in different geographical areas, countries, cultures etc.

    Another aspect is that a significant proportion of many classes of crimes in many western societies today, like for example murder, assualt and rape (just to name a few) seems to often be made under the influence of alcohol, drugs, personal rage and mental disabilities, which means that they are to a large degree unsensitive to increased societal pressures, which (taken in isolation), strongly argues against the proposition of a reduced need for police officers for example.

    “However, unlike the glimpse of this technology demonstrated in the Demolition Man…”

    A horrible vision indeed, which also underscores another important aspect of humanty, there will always be defectors, which means that the more we scale back security and safety measures, the potential damage they will be able to accomplish will rise exponentially.

    • Anton Krivosheyev says:

      @LittleGreenLeaf

      “I agree, or, the internet and geographical zones (countries) need to be segmented in relation to what level of transparancy exist in that zone.”

      Crime is already reduced wherever there is a live web camera installed, so this would give us a hint that we would have to choose to join/visit/create such a transparent community. What you see today is only a shadow of what will be in the future. All of the today’s big internet companies will participate in productively crunching the infinite bits of various (especially video) data from the information you provide every second of your day, for the rest of your life.

      A Google employee pops his head out of his cubicle: “Did someone say $#!7 tons of data?”

      Can’t wait for some quality laughs over the YouTube shots from some of the funniest scenes on the planet. Also can’t wait for when the Google Health (RIP) Reincarnated app on my head-mounted thingy knows exactly how bad my health is.

      So, with such enormous quantity of data voluntarily provided by the user, it should possess impressive life prognosis accuracy when supplied with enough supercomputing power.

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    A transparent society requires a high degree of tolerance, or it will not be a place worth living in.

    While increased transparency no doubt favours at least some forms of tolerance (consider the effect of internationalisation: encountering other cultures does seem to reduce racism) it can also promote certain forms of intolerance, as I have earlier argued here. Even if the trend would be for an inexorable growth of tolerance it might also be too slow: if it takes one or two generations to learn how to cope with a transparent world, that means that there will be a lengthy period of time when everybody will be subject to empowered intolerance. It does not matter that we can document and name every member of the lynch mob if most (global)villagers are part of it.

    David Brin’s old argument was that transparency is coming whether we want it or not, so we should focus on how to control the use of it so that it remains compatible with an open society. So far I have not seen any convincing way of preventing the growth of surveillance and memory in the large, whether technological or institutional, so the first part of the argument seems valid. The fear expressed in many of these comments is that there might not be any way of preserving open societies in a transparent world (the really pessimistic view) or that it will be hard or impossible to implement the right kind of controls/norms/whatever needed to do it (the gloomy view). However, I do not think we have strong evidence for the really pessimistic view, and the gloomy view strongly depends on what means we propose to fix the problems of transparency.

    So that seems to be where it would be worthwhile to put in more effort: coming up with novel ways of handling transparent situations and societies, including transitional ones. If you think transparency can be avoided you should still consider these as a safety measure should your theory or plan fail.

  • Lisa says:

    I’ll take my chances in an unmonitored, “dangerous” world over any type of large-scale surveillance….any day. I can not think of a single real-life example where this sort of surveillance truly benefited a population…especially psychologically/socially. I don’t want to know what my neighbor is doing at home, nor anyone else for that matter…and can’t fathom why anyone else would, except for nefarious purposes….

  • Nickolas Schaffer says:

    I can’t see any upsides to this, for a reason that makes it futile debating any alleged “upside”: no governments – not even the most dictatorial – would be interested in implementing and maintaining such a pointless, expensive and cumbersome surveillance regime. And no democratic populations would elect parties with this on their platform.

    Carefully targeted surveillance for crime reduction purposes can make sense, but I think we can leave this “total surveillance” idea to the sci-fi silly-billies.

  • Eli Cummings says:

    The primary assumption is that technology can fix some aspect of the human condition considered to be undesirable.

    There are unintended consequences of fixes that do not manifest themselves in the short term. Such consequences are addressed through additional technological fixes. The common word for this is patch.

    A patch is necessary because the object that is being patched cannot either be replaced or the cost of replacement is orders of magnitude more expensive than the patch.

    This behavior is itself a part of the human condition.

    Fixes are short term and this fits with our evolutionary development. We are aware of our own death which is the limiting time factor (appeals to posterity, remembrance etc. are touted as cultural and biological fixes to this but there is no evidence that behavior is altered by them to any significant degree).

    Our notions of what a total surveillance society would look like are the product of the imaginations of those people who have communicated their own thoughts about the matter and do not necessarily and probably don’t reflect what the actual reality of such a system would be. There has never been such a society so we have no idea what it would look like. Our extrapolation of our present into the future has always been to a very large degree inaccurate.

    Regarding our mantra to ourselves that individuals matter, we are not sure how they matter once the individual becomes part of a larger group where the survival of the group overrides all individual wants and needs. The development of empathy as a human trait in varying degrees has contributed to our being able to be part of a large group but has also resulted in our not being able to judge a system without a focus on some subset of individual narratives within that system (the portrayal of individual lives within a system is what we accept as characteristic of the system as a whole though this is often not the case for all individuals within a system).

    Our focus on the individual is what helps us deal with the impersonality of the system we live in and which has its own dynamic apart from all the wishes and desires of its members.

    If we accept that every action causes and opposite and equal reaction, we are confronted with a dynamic that in choosing an cause of action sets in motion an opposite force. If political suppression is viewed as pressure, we know that increased pressure will ultimately result in an expansion depending on the strength of the container (in such a case the ability of the members of a society to endure suppression).

    We will all have our opinions and act according to our temperaments but we are usually doomed to be disappointed with the outcome since it won’t be what we thought it would be.

    Did Ghandi ever imagine that what he set in motion would give us what we have to day in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ?

    We gravitate to people who either give us a vision of the future that we ourselves do not possess and to which we can work toward or give us a vision that makes us fearful of not acting in some way. The evidence of our past suggests that all visions are mirages, useful for helping us to continue across the desert but never quenching our thirst.

    Regardless of all of the above, we will act but the result of our actions (in general) will unfold in ways we could not have foreseen.

  • Jeremy says:

    One of this article’s underlying assumptions is that it can define what may or may not be an unambiguous “benefit” for all of society – which is quite a tall order. Take, for example, the “crime reduction” argument. Part of the issue here is that the people who will be implementing and co-coordinating this surveillance will be the same people who decide what is or isn’t a crime – the legislature at the top level, and law enforcement on the ground. There is no reason to expect that they will implement this surveillance in a way that might compromise their own activities, nor can we expect them to control the impulse to abuse their power save for the presence of immense public dissent (dissent which your article, incidentally enough, can only undermine). Take for example the stories of people video-taping police officers with their phones: there are many calls for this to be made illegal and officers routinely confiscate phones and wipe them of all their videos. Furthermore, during large events or demonstrations, reporters are often corralled into areas far distant from the main events – meaning that they are unable to record or investigate abuses of power. Information increases power, and the concentration of power in any one place invites corruption – a quick response team pitched as a cure for purse-snatchers can quickly suppress protestors, surveillance of an anti-government demonstration is culled so that the only images sent to the press are those depicting vandalism or other crimes, and never those of peaceful protestors or of police brutality. In the end, the quantity of information available is so vast, and so concentrated, that almost any version of the events can be supported with judicial uses of quote-mining and selective editing – resulting in little more than a massive propaganda machine.

    Sure, the surveillance can be implemented more democratically – giving everyone access to all of the cameras, preventing officers from confiscating cell phones, giving the press easier access to information – but this will almost certainly not happen so long as the resources and drive for a surveillance state come from the government and corporations. The current concentration of power, left on its own, will only increase itself – as those with power act only to improve their standing and their grip. The best thing for us to do is to vigorously oppose any increase in power and surveillance (which, again, are different sides of the same thing), if not to prevent the development of the surveillance state, then to mollify it – to force those who promote the increase in surveillance to compromise in the face of immense opposition.

    Of course, that kind of opposition has failed to materialize, in part because of articles like this – which extol the imagined benefits of surveillance and pitch it as an inevitability while failing to critique what surveillance actually means. This technology will never come to good so long as there are articles like this promoting complacency, covering themselves up with feeble platitudes like “we all know the negatives” – as if saying that actually accomplishes anything. This article is intellectually lazy and politically dangerous. It aids only those who are not in need of help.

    • Eli Cummings says:

      Jeremy. I couldn’t agree with you more but am not sanguine that “control of the masses”, which is surely the primary directive of governance today regardless of the political system, can ever lead to anything but a police state, even if it is “benign”. With all the illusions that humans have had to give up as we have evolved, maybe the last illusion is that we are or have ever been “free”.

  • George says:

    Speaking here as a subject-matter expert:

    We have already tried this experiment and it has succeeded fully, in the sense of returning clear and unambiguous results that bear upon the hypothesis being tested.

    In earlier times, the technologies and techniques of surveillance were limited compared to those of today or a hypothetical future: live-intercept wiretaps, concealed microphones, undercover agents recruited from the general population, and so on. Yet at each point in time, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have promulgated the belief that the technologies they had were sufficient to constitute a near-total surveillance society.

    Thus the perception of people living under those regimes has been that they had no privacy in any effective sense of the word. The fact that one “might be” surveilled at any given moment, is equivalent in the mind of the individual, to “actually being” surveilled continuously, a point also made by Orwell as he described the telescreens of _1984_. Keep in mind that the technology of each era was not only promoted as being cutting-edge or fully modern, it was perceived as such by the citizens of each regime.

    The clear and unambiguous results are that the perception of universal or ubiquitous surveillance has produced societies that are stultified, stifled, and driven by pervasive fear, full stop. The hypothesis that universal surveillance might be benign, has been falsified utterly and completely.

    Anyone who doubts me on this would do well to read the published accounts of life under those regimes, starting with East Germany.

    It does not matter that earlier technologies were imperfect and incomplete compared to hypothetical future technologies. All that matters is that whatever technology is in use in a given time and place, is felt by the public to be sufficient for ubiquitous surveillance. From that, the pervasive fear follows.

    Is that the world you want to live in? And if not, where is the will and resolve and moral or ethical obligation to do otherwise?

    Further, it’s also clear that the ruling sectors of every society manage to exempt themselves from whatever means of surveillance they apply to those under their dominion. To take just one example: how many corporations and government agencies routinely require random urine testing of their high-level managers for drugs? The worker-bees must routinely pull down their pants and give working demonstrations of what we once quaintly called their “private parts” to prove that they don’t smoke marijuana, but this “I’ll show you mine” has no reciprocal “you show me yours,” with the result that the outcome is the archetypal mammalian gesture of submission: wherein the “underdogs” ritually bare their abdomens to the “top dogs,” signifying total surrender. (See also “hat honor” for an earlier era’s version of the same thing.)

    With all the talk of catching blue-collar criminals or preventing blue-collar crime, has there ever been a peep about catching white-collar criminals or preventing white-collar crime? It was not a pandemic of muggings that crashed the economy in 2008: it was a pandemic of financial manipulations, many of which were blatantly illegal, few of which have ever been prosecuted. Do you fancy yourself as having sufficient free time and knowledge to watch financial executives’ daily lives via whatever cameras as may see them, and comprehend what they are doing as they set up shady deals and fleece investors? For that matter do you really believe that they will subject themselves to the same scrutiny that they impose upon their “inferiors”?

    Bottom line: the promotion of a panoptic society is all about “prediction and control,” toward the goal of the ever more efficient use of humans as energy-converters for the benefit of those who predict and those who control.

    I’ll have more to say about truly “enlightened” surveillance in my next comment.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      You make an interesting point about how even being perceived to be under surveillance can have a stultifying effect.

      But it’s also trivially true that repressive governments+mass surveillance does not equal hugs and puppies. That doesn’t tell, though, that the same would automatically be true under democratic governments, or whether democracies can maintain themselves or not given mass surveillance. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that democracies with the most surveillance (eg UK) are any less free than democracies with lower surveillance. More research is needed…

      As for white collar crime – I didn’t mention it, because it’s a lot harder to catch with cameras. An automated AI could probably detect someone knifing an old lady, but not a financier buying one stock rather than another and hence crashing an economy. And a lot of white collar crime is in the grey area anyway – it’s rarely inarguably illegal. But surveillance would have some effect on white collar crime – not catching it at the time, but convicting it later.

      • George (in California USA) says:

        Hi Stuart – Apologies for the late reply, not enough free time in the last few days.

        Agreed, repressive govs != hugs & puppies. However, what is it that makes a government repressive? One of the key elements is pervasive surveillance.

        The same case applies to the workplace and the marketplace: pervasive surveillance creates an unpleasant atmosphere, as if one isn’t trusted to do one’s job or buy one’s goods without attempting to steal or commit other offenses.

        For example, retail establishments serving the well-to-do, do not have pervasive surveillance, because they know that it would alienate their clientele, who have the means to take their business elsewhere. This generalizes to the fact that if given the choice, any retail patron will prefer to shop in a place where they are not being constantly watched.

        Law-abiding behavior can be socialized without need of surveillance, by way of positive character trait reinforcement. Putting students on the honor system is a very effective way to do that (speaking from experience). When the local authorities (e.g. teachers & professors) extend trust, a normal human will respond in a manner akin to the reciprocity involved in gift-giving, by honoring that trust and abiding by the expected norms.

        Re. democracies and government surveillance: in the US we had, until recently, a very effective norm regarding the need for warrants signed by judges in order for law enforcement officers to search properties, utilize wiretaps, and utilize certain other types of electronic surveillance. Executive-branch power was subject to the check and balance of the judicial branch, and this ensured that law enforcement used its surveillance powers in a responsible manner. Although there were some scandalous instances of over-reach, they were the exception rather than the commonplace. This was a system that everyone could live with. The present condition wherein judicial oversight has been sharply limited, has created an impression of excessive executive power.

        But that situation barely holds the proverbial candle to the degree of over-reach practiced in the private sector, about which I could go on for pages rather than paragraphs. This situation will worsen unless substantial legal protections are enacted: it is 100% foreseeable that people will suffer discrimination in housing and employment based upon “profiles” generated from their online activities and general consumer habits, including political speech that is otherwise protected by law. That situation is intolerable and in the long run the citizens will not allow it to persist, but getting to that point will be an uphill battle.

        Re. catching white collar crime: ultimately this is nearly identical with a number of other categories of intelligence collection & analysis, that are highly labor-intensive on the analysis side. Collection can be automated; analysis, much less so, with the resulting need for experts who can devote lengthy periods of time to specific cases, before a prosecution can even occur. Here again, the public demand for redress of grievances will probably lead to reforms over time.

  • George says:

    Part two: what “enlightened” surveillance looks like: A few examples.

    Sarah had to work late again, and was feeling nervous as she walked in the dark toward her bus stop. She sat down and looked at the public safety panel in the bus shelter. The green light next to the “Privacy” button was lit and a steel shutter was closed over the camera. She knew she could press the red “Emergency” button and get help in a pinch, but tonight her safety sense was itchy, so she pressed the yellow “Surveillance” button. The camera shutter slid open and momentarily a police officer’s face appeared on the screen.

    “Police here, may I help you?” he asked. She replied, “Hi, can you keep an eye on me until I get on the bus?” “Yes ma’am,” he said, “I’ve got you on my screen here.” “Thanks, officer.”

    Sarah took out her mobile device and called up a magazine to read. Occasionally she glanced at the screen and saw the officer as he looked over the numerous screens he was watching. When her bus came, she got up and said, “Bus is here, I’ll be going now.” The officer replied, “OK, have a safe trip,” and the steel shutter dropped down over the camera as the green “Privacy” light turned on.

    Getting on the bus, she found a seat and pressed the “Watch me” button next to her seat. A yellow light blinked on the camera at the front of the bus, and then another one blinked on the button she had pressed. The camera would ignore the other passengers and only record the part of its view that showed Sarah and the tops of the heads of the people in the seat in front of her.

    As she walked home from her stop, she saw a man down the street walking in her direction. She pressed a button on her mobile phone and it started relaying the scene to her home server. The man turned out to be a neighbor. She turned off her camera (and he turned off his) and they said Hi and talked for a moment.

    When she got home, her son and a friend were watching a movie. “Hi Mom,” he said, pausing the movie, “Dad called. They’re loading new thorium in the reactor, so he won’t be home until about eleven o’clock.” “Oh,” she said, “OK. Have you kids eaten yet?” “We had a snack…”

    She put her mobile in its charger and pressed a button on her desk phone. This signaled her home server to erase the video of her walk down the block. Elsewhere, the videos from inside the bus, and from the bus stop, would each go into encrypted storage for a month, accessible only with court orders. After a month, they would be automatically deleted.

    “Does anyone feel like having spaghetti?”

    The point of that exercise is: surveillance is benign and “enlightened” when it’s fully under the control of the people who are being watched, and when it has appropriate safeguards against abuse.

    The bottom line is empowerment: when you control it, you are empowered. When someone else has control and you don’t, they have power over you.

    Technology is not a force of nature like the weather, over which we have no control. We get the technology we choose. The fact that 1/7 of humanity chooses to show off selected details of their lives on Facebook does not equate to 7/7 of humanity having all of the details of their lives recorded, including video, audio, and some day perhaps “smelleo” from their bedrooms, bathrooms, and intimate conversations, whether they like it or not.

    We have a word for the place where there is no privacy. We call it “prison.”

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      I like this example (though feel its unlikely to come to pass, alas :-(

      • George (in California USA) says:

        Actually, it might yet come to pass. I’m involved in designing a new telecoms network, and once the network is launched & operational, I’ll start having quiet discussions with various relevant groups (citizens, local government) to see if there’s any interest. If so, we could provide public safety terminals at bus stops, at no cost to local governments, so they would only need to tie them into their dispatching centers, and that would take care of that. This would set an example that could be emulated elsewhere. We’ll see what happens;-)

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