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: Continue reading

Surrendering to big brother might be the least bad option

We’re probably approaching a point where blue-collar crime could be eradicated, one way or the other. But the way does matter: we could eradicate crime through ubiquitous surveillance, or through drug treatments/targeted lobotomies to remove the urges to criminality, or through effective early identification of potential criminals and preemptive measures against them, or through skilled large scale social manipulation of attitudes, or even through reducing all human interactions to tele-presence.

All these methods are unpleasant and undermine our current notions of democracy, but persistent fear of crime (despite the persistent reduction in actual crime) means that politicians will find it extraordinarily difficult not to implement one of these measures, were it to work. Humanity will likely find itself in a crime-free society; the question is how.

To my mind, ubiquitous surveillance is the least unpleasant of the possibilities – it’s non-discriminatory, doesn’t interfere with people’s inner motivations, doesn’t involve sinister manipulations of social norms or loss of human interactions. Assuming we can’t hold the line, that’s where I would want it to be broken.

But we might have more influence if we surrender early. Saying “we’ll allow surveillance, but fight you tooth and nail and claw on the other methods” would make it much easier to ensure those other methods were not implemented. In exchange for cooperation, we could also push the surveillance state into more positive implementations of the policy – maybe achieving 360 degree transparency (we watch the rulers watching us) or treating recording akin to electronic medical records, only allowing them to viewed in specific circumstances.


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