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.