How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

I recently published an article on the possible upsides of mass surveillance (somewhat in the vein of David Brin’s “transparent society”). To nobody’s great astonishment, it has attracted criticism! Some of them accuse me of not knowing the negative aspects of surveillance. But that was not the article’s point; there is already a lot written on the negative aspects (Bruce Schneier and Cory Doctorow, for instance, have covered this extremely well). Others make the point that though these benefits may be conceivable in principle, I haven’t shown how they could be obtained in practice.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions:

  • Put no trust in privacy laws. Privacy laws have completely failed at preventing the NSA and others from spying on us. I see no reason for this to change. Privacy laws can also be abused to shield powerful organisations, muzzle journalists, and prevent investigations. The government will be enforcing these privacy laws; if you can’t trust the government not to spy on us, why would we trust them to enforce these laws for our own benefit?
  • The problem is that so much can be deduced from so little. A few GPS coordinates or just checking your wi-fi signal is enough to figure out who you are and where you live. Even if you practice perfect security (which you don’t), family members and friends will compromise this (even cybercriminals can’t protect their own privacy!) It takes very little information to hurt you (an insurance company can increase your fees based on the weakest of rumous, target can figure out if you’re pregnant) but a lot to help you (if you had a heart condition, your doctor would want detailed recording of your last few days or weeks). Algorithms and narrow AI will be continually improving the ability of organisations to figure things out about people.
  • So instead of controlling your information, focus on knowing how it’s being used. Unlike preventing the (mis)use of your information, accessing it and recording its use is a much more achievable goal. Websites track traffic; knowing who and what is reading your info should be feasible. Especially in the context of general mass surveillance, knowing who knows about you should be doable. And abuses will thus be easier to detect than they are now – if your insurance company is using your private information illegally, you can scream at them. And then sue them.
  • Film everything the police does. In some areas, police interrogations are filmed. Traffic cops often have recordings in their vehicles. Lobby to increase this surveillance, and to allow the passerbys to record police actions. Have a proportion of people going around with cameras that continually and discreetly record everything around them, uploading the data in real time. The police should expect that every moment of being on duty, they can expect to be recorded. If they’re not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear.
  • Record everything you do. If others have your data, they may use it against you. Your own recording at least prevents them from distorting the picture too much.
  • Push for freedom of information acts as much as possible. This is a no-brainer, but it’s important to keep up the pressure. In a mass surveillance society, the police and government will have all the tools they need to fight crime; they will have little need for secrecy as well, so don’t let them have it. To pick an extreme example: if we spy on everyone and every gram of uranium in the world, then there’s no need to keep the plans of the atomic bomb a secret, as no-one will be able to discreetly build one. That may excessive, but there are certainly low-level government and corporate secrets than have no reason to remain secret.
  • Fight to repeal the war on drugs. We need to cut down on the number of crimes on the books (since every crime could get caught) and this seems the natural place to start.
  • Demand consistent enforcement of laws. If society can’t bear consistent enforcement of certain laws, then those laws have no reason to be. Allow private filming of criminal activities, and prosecute based on this evidence.
  • Put almost all recordings online. Once they’re online, its very hard for powerful organisations to take them down. If we are to get the peace dividends of surveillance, then we’ll have to accept countries spying more openly on each other anyway.
  • Bring cameras into boardrooms and increase shareholder rights. Politicians are quite well tracked by the media, but corporate powers are very anonymous. Change this balance of power by requiring more disclosure and surveillance in the corporate world.
  • Diversify and privatise surveillance capabilities. The Occupy Wall Street copter shows the way: have more organisations with divergent goals and surveillance capabilities. This is another place where privacy laws are pernicious: they’d justify turning off this sort of private small-scale sousveillance.
  • Watch the governments and corporations like hawks. The big risk is surveillance-enabled totalitarianism. As far as I can tell, no democratic government has gone totalitarian through mass surveillance (indeed, democratic governments going totalitarian is very rare – the reverse is much more common). But there’s always that risk, so keeping an eye on them as much as possible will be vital.
  • Change the culture to allow more tolerance. This is a tall order (any cultural change is), but if we don’t want to be driven to mindless conformity, we’re going to have to develop tolerance for each other’s eccentricities and foibles and perversions.

Right, that’s all that springs to mind for the moment – extra suggestions welcome!

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11 Responses to How to get positive surveillance – a few ideas

  • Joao Lourenco says:

    I am not sure if all of this was your intention. But in hindsight, it seems you should have stressed out more that the epistemic better way to approach the question is to impartially see all sides, and that since there’s abundance on the bad side, you decide to write on the (possible) good side of surveillance. Further, you should also have stressed more that that given that futures where surveillance is inevitable are not – at least – out of the table, thinking on how to manage such situation is one rational approach to the question. Otherwise, people will be blind to anything you say, they will only see a veil of red flagging “bad guy’s logic” everywhere. The political and ideological approach to the question is the default, under that approach you are either on the bad or on the good side, if you are on the bad side, obviously, everything you say is wrong. Saying good things about surveillance puts you, obviously, on the bad side – you are with ‘them’. Judging from the comments, that’s what seems to have happen. They are missing the point of your arguments. It seems you have done something great, that is publishing one of those rare pieces that sees past the red/blue logic, yet you are unable to convey that as you are being tagged as red from the start.

    But well, probably you have more experience than me on doing this. Maybe being polemic is the right path, or maybe not activating red/blue logic is impossible.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      I think you might be right…

      Oh well, what’s done is done now. I really wish the whole surveillance and one-world government issues could be solved properly (should we be pushing for or against these?), and this might contribute to the debate.

  • Joao Lourenco says:

    The good thing is that you are clearly not affiliated with the goverment (them), so the fact that one of “us” is defending some aspects of surveillance will amount to some bayesian shift, I hope.

    It doesn’t seem totalitarianism is a big risk, specially comparing with the sum of all other catastrophic risks or with the other benefits of large scale cooperation. But, wrongly phrasing the cause of pressing for one-world government might be an existential risk for research institutes. Increasing cooperation and transparency seems a good way of phrasing – it seems to be particularly popular in the EU. Singleton is nice also, it is new and carries less ideological weight. Plus, if you signal the wrong flag you also run the risk of totalitarian prone individuals – if there is such thing – to ride along, which might not be ideal. It is clear most people against surveillance are for cooperation, environmental change and so on, and arguing that reducing dishonest signaling through transparency increases cooperation is rather innocuous. But, it is just circumventing the question. It doesn’t address what to do in a world where surveillance is unavoidable.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >Increasing cooperation and transparency seems a good way of phrasing

      I’ll remember that 🙂

  • David Brin says:

    A very intelligent and well-written appraisal of how we might use increases in light to improve our societal health, instead of giving in to the temptation to cower and hide from the mighty. The term is “sousveillance” or looking at elites from below. I liked a lot of the bullet points (naturally.)

    I have a wide collection of articles on this at:

    Of course then there is my 1997 book: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? Wherein I claim we already have the individualistic society that appreciates diversity and eccentricity, that would let transparency work. We have only to foster and believe in it.

    Regarding “world government” it is important to parse the psychology and dangers and hope. I have a stab at it here:

    Thanks and good luck and spread the notion that light is the key to enlightenment.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

  • David Brin says:

    PS I will be in London in August. Drop me a line if interested in a talk… Thrive and Persevere.

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

  • Mike Johnson says:

    Lots of excellent thoughts here. Two additional thoughts:
    (1) Good governance always matters, but it matters more in a surveillance state, since the government can enforce its will more effectively. A unit of effort put toward improving governance might go much further in mitigating the evils of surveillance than that same unit of effort put directly into mitigating these evils.
    (2) This technological end of privacy will be retroactive, and strongly so. It’s not just our future selves that will be under pervasive surveillance, but our present and past selves, as well.

    Best wishes,
    Mike Johnson
    (we met at Stanford)

  • Outtanames999 says:

    Yes, watch the police, but also watch all the watchers. When is the last time you saw the personally identifiable information of anyone who has yours? Bank employees, credit bureau employees, health care employees, human resources dept. employees, NSA employees, IRS employees — the list goes on and on and on. We are living in 1984 and the key fallacy of that story – who is watching the watchers is the meme for our time. Action and observation are the antidotes.

  • The Keystone Garter says:

    I’ve been thinking alot about who would make responsible single-purpose WMD sensor network, administrators. I’ve simplified four tiers of ethics. There are those amenable to despots. The are those that believe the 3 main religions: Judiasm, Christianity, Islam. There are taught to be nice to the poor, but don’t take some higher responsibilities into their personnel spheres. And there is a wide range of good and bad here, and people are generally a conglomerate of more than one of these simplifications.
    There are those who are socialized good. Good upbringings and personnel contact. This is bad in inefficient systems; alot of sociology is communist. But it is good to have our post modern countries rub off their best on others. It is why community centres for poor moms works. And the highest good of people are abstract thinkers. Again, lots of range in these last three groups, lots of overlap. But utilitarianism is objectively true. Your own consciousness is limited in space time unless you invent a personal blackhole machine you can think through or some god-like engineering technology. Even if you don’t die, your brain won’t get bigger than an asteroid size. That person you were, doesn’t exist now but you value his happy states more than suffering. So all else equal, the parts of the universe that don’t serve you are best served by conscious actors, happy ones. Just how to weight your own life vs all others is harder to demarciate…I’d prefer people in positions of power to be group 4 over group 3 over two over 1, all else equal.

  • The Keystone Garter says:

    …to go off on a few tangents. Plato’s higher pleasures are better because they are more useful to society in general, that is, directly useful. Being able to appreciate art suggests an abstract reasoning faculty, though more visceral sensory pleasures can be happier memories. The latter are distracting. You could give people, such as good future admiinistrators, pleasure credits to be banked for a later time. To know things loses Santa Claus illusions but you gain some power over your ability to control your mind, which is stress reducing just like powerful careers are. Making others happy isn’t as bittersweet as is making oneself happy. You are always aware of your own potential mortality much more than the potential mortality of others. All this is relavent to some degree in getting good administrators. I’m hoping for sensors that only loook for really bad things but boy is it a slippery slope to imprisoning too many people under our inefficient laws that are now only partly enforced…


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