Thoughts On Surviellance

I decided to make a post about my thoughts on modern mass surveillance as it's something I've thought about a lot whilst making my latest short 'Dysco'. I've done this in part because the message and narrative in Dysco is somewhat ambiguous and this may help clarify the thought processes behind it.

Due to the revelations of Edward Snowdon it is clear that we are building a vast transnational system of surveillance. A system that is already far more massive and sophisticated that I could have imagined even in my supposedly paranoid moments. And that growth will continue to accelerate.

I do not particularly hold with the assurance that 'if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.' (A subject I touched on in a previous short I made.) Do you trust the government to hold immense quantities of your personal information? And if you believe in governments benevolent intentions do you trust every one, of the many thousands, of employees and contractors of the government? Do you trust the commercial entities with which this information will be shared? Do you believe that this information couldn't be used for financial gain? That sometimes these institutions don't act in ways that are dangerous and damaging to the individual? Do you believe it is impossible for them to be seduced by the promise of easy profit?

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Do you believe that this information won't be misused, leaked, used to blackmail or in any number of as yet unimagined dark practices? And even if every agent with access to this information is moral and incorruptible there is the spectre of accidental misuse. The truth is massive data sets are being swept up by government and private organisations and it is inhumanly impossible to analyse this swathe of information by individuals so computer programs are used to search for patterns, to analyse, categorise and filter. To profile you. Even a cursory analysis of the evidence shows that complex automated systems such as this do generate simplifications, errors and mistakes. These anomalies could ultimately affect where you can travel to, applications for credit or mortgages, health decisions and almost every aspect of your life. Errors which could control your life in profoundly damaging ways.

Automated systems record permanently vast amounts of data (so called 'big data'). This can be everything from your physical location which is taken from your phone but also every click you ever make online. This can disclose almost everything about you, your political and sexual orientation, your personal interests, who you look at on Facebook, your sleeping patterns to everything you buy on Amazon. With a little digging it possible to even access your financial and health records. Every digital action you take is recordable and can be pieced together to form a profile of you.

Even if we discount possible malicious actions and computer error there is something even more profoundly dangerous in the spectre of this 'complete' surviellance. It is the fact that if we know we are being watched we alter our behaviour. Even if we're doing nothing wrong. Can you honestly say that if you knew that every action, every meeting, every word you spoke, were potentially being recorded, watched and analysed, you wouldn't modify your behaviour? I know it would affect me. Free speech, free thought and free association are non-negotiable elements of a free, creative, open society and we are rapidly eroding these fundamental values. Privacy is essential to a free society.

I fear that in the UK we are not having a real debate about how new forms of technology and surveillance are affecting us. I fear that massive amounts policy are justified by the shadow of terrorism and pedophilia. Whilst these are real and profoundly disturbing threats which should be combated aggressively but there are many many more issues involved and these headline issues are simplified and used as a smokescreen for deeply insidious policies and practices. We should really worry that if we raise the issue of personal liberty and freedom from state and corporate surviellance we are labeled a terrorist sympathiser or in some way helping pedophiles. We should not be bullied, guilted or scared into draconian policies which reduce all our freedom.

It is said that if you put a frog is in a pan of cold water on a stove and heats up gradually, the frog never realises that the water is getting hotter and hotter. It is boiled alive before it realises there is any danger. I worry that we're a bit like that frog, that layer after layer, a blanket of surviellance is growing around us. I think we need to look around and hop out before it's too late. But unfortunately it's not quite that easy.

There are many complex issues involved in this discussion, issues that many people, including myself, find it hard to get our heads around. Technical, often dry issues of network security, international law, open source software, encryption and countless others, and they are difficult to grasp. But I believe we should try and understand these issues. We should not blindly accept authority figures assuring us they have our best interests at heart and that 'if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear'. We should participate in the process. We should shape our own futures and decide collectively and not sleepwalk into a police state which is increasingly mirroring George Orwell's terrifying vision. We should be participants not merely subjects. 

Homer's words, “the blade itself incites to deeds of violence” come to my mind when thinking about this subject. It seems to make if we are building a vast, machine state of total surviellance we should not be surprised if we become powerless minions under an all seeing  eye. Regardless of the assurances of those in power or those with something to gain. If we build an apparatus capable of complete digital dominion we should not be surprised that that is exactly what it is used for.

You may feel that more words are vastly over the top, that I overstate the threat, that I'm some kind of conspiracy nut. And maybe you're right. But it seems to me that the potential of this technology is so vast, so saturating that it should be taken seriously. Maybe it's healthy to be a bit paranoid given what's at stake.  But just take a step back and think how far digital technology and the internet have transformed the world over 10 or twenty years, think about the next 20 or 50! I'm not saying that the UK will turn into a police state which mirrors North Korea but there is a certain potential for something deeply insidious, profoundly dangerous, quietly and terrifyingly complete, to emerge. A new form of state and corporate control that we're only now beginning to guess at. I hope that I'm overstating the threat, I really do.

And it's not all darkness, there are of course many massively exciting and positive things to be gained from widespread adoption of digital technology. I am not a luddite, I don't think the solution is to try and stop technology, to close our eyes and unplug, but we must go into the future with our eyes open. We must shape it by talking about it, understanding it and actively engaging in it. We must put pressure on political leaders and also by the choices we make when using companies and services. We must be aware of the potential threats whilst listening to the seductive promises. We should try and ensure that as our lives move online so do our rights.