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!