Monday, July 01, 2013

State & corporate interests aligned on mass surveillance

Lucian Hudson, the Open University's Director of Communications and a former senior civil servant in both the Foreign Office and the Justice Department, posted some interesting thoughts on the Snowden PRISM revelations recently, suggesting we ourselves pose the biggest threat to liberty. I've responded in comments on Lucian's blog but include a copy here for posterity.


Whilst agreeing with your broad theme – on disproportionate societal fear, the consequent attraction of simplistic paternalistic securocratic governance and our undermining of fundamental liberties through e.g. trading privacy for convenience with modern communications technologies – I don’t completely subscribe to the notion that the biggest threat to liberty is ourselves.

At the moment a bigger issue is that the interests of the state and corporate establishments happen to be aligned in relation to big data. The collection and processing of personal data is [wrongly] perceived to be a silver bullet route to solving a range of political issues in the case of the state (e.g. terrorism as you mention) and to financial success in the markets in the case of the private sector. Simplistic and ill-informed though these mindsets are – computers do not magically solve complex political, social, economic, environmental, security or market problems just by chucking money at them or by making them bigger/faster or capable of collecting & processing more data – they fundamentally undermine privacy/liberty interests of the individual.

Whilst the state is subject to significantly tighter formal checks and balances than the private sector in relation to mass surveillance – the rule of law theoretically precludes the engagement in indiscriminate fishing expeditions in the hope of finding smoking gun evidence – the arguments rolled out by politicians, under the pressure of the modern 24/7 news cycle, relay a persuasive if misleading message to the contrary on preferred policy. We can, it is said, have liberty OR security; security OR privacy; or in more subtle form, we have to BALANCE privacy and security. This is a false dichotomy. As you rightly point out, security and liberty are mutually dependant not opposing forces.

Additionally we have the powerful but false and, frankly, poisonous ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ meme repeated by William Hague and others in response to the PRISM revelations recently. When you cast the apparently small privacy need of the individual against the national security gain of the state which will seemingly benefit society as a whole, it is impossible to argue the needs of the individual outweigh the common good.

The ‘nothing to hide…’ argument, however, is based on two huge and erroneous foundations.

The first is that it assumes all privacy is only about hiding bad things. Yet without personal privacy/liberty our society would be suffocating – privacy, liberty and the common good are inextricably interlinked and mutually dependent.

The second is that decimating privacy is the solution to the problem du jour – security, terrorism, serious crime, benefit fraud, NHS patient care etc. It’s possible to prove this thesis wrong mathematically but for the present purposes think of terrorist detection as a needle in a haystack problem. You don’t make it easier to find the needle by throwing more electronic data hay on the stack. Mass data collectors can dig deeply into the digital persona of anyone but don’t have the resources to do so with everyone. The resultant pursuit of false positive leads mean the real bad guys often get lost in the noise, as happened with the 9/11 attackers who were known to US authorities but not considered sufficiently important to intercept.

There is no magic computer solution to the rare terrorism problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Law enforcement and security services need to be able to move with the times, use modern digital technologies intelligently in their work and through targeted data preservation regimes – not a mass surveillance regime – engage in technological surveillance of individuals about whom they have reasonable cause to harbor suspicion. That is not, however, the same as building an infrastructure of mass surveillance.

This brings us back to the current alignment of state and corporate interests in relation to the architectures of our digital communications technologies. We could architect systems that enhance privacy and facilitate anonymity and net neutrality. We don’t.

The organisations that construct and operate these technologies have no market or regulatory incentives to build or run them this way. We, I agree, contribute enormously to this state of affairs by trading our privacy for the convenience/ attraction/gratification/access/community/conformity of the services that we use on the internet. We additionally contribute by failing to engage in a meaningful and persuasive way in the public debate on these issues. Our much maligned politicians are busy generalists subject to the constant glare of the media spotlight who really do not understand the technology and we have to be better at explaining it to them.

The state, likewise, has no incentive either to direct its vast purchasing power towards or to pass regulations to require the building and operation of liberty respecting network architectures. [Neither, in relation to regulations, has it got the required understanding of the technology to do so.] The state establishment, at the highest levels of its requisite parts, has largely bought into the belief that big data is good and their unfettered access to it even better.

We have to be more active/persuasive/engaged as individuals, citizens, employees, consumers or prosumers in convincing ourselves, our organisations, communities, society, the market and the state that an infrastructure of mass surveillance is not conducive to the public good. As long as the most powerful actors in this calculus, however, the state and the corporate sector, continue to share the belief that the continued building and operation of such an infrastructure of mass surveillance is in their mutual interest, it will be a difficult argument to win.



PS Aside from the Snowden story, on the positive side, if the earlier Bradley Manning Wikileaks leaks revealed anything it was the huge numbers of dedicated US government officials and diplomats working day to day, above and beyond the call of duty, to uphold the values of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Having worked yourself at senior level in the civil service, you’ll no doubt be aware of equivalent commitment to democratic values on the part of UK government officials. There are a multitude of similarly dedicated individuals in the the state and corporate establishment across the globe. So it can’t be beyond us to evolve the surveillance state that is the internet of 2013 into something more respecting of democratic values and freedoms.