"what kind of surveillance society we should be fighting for"
April 18, 2013 4:33 PM   Subscribe

Practical Ethics: Enlightened Surveillance?
Surrendering on surveillance might be the least bad option – of all likely civil liberty encroachments, this seemed the less damaging and hardest to resist. But that’s an overly defensive way of phrasing it – if ubiquitous surveillance and lack of privacy are the trends of the future, we shouldn’t just begrudgingly accept them, but demand that society gets the most possible out of them.

The Dangers Of Surveillance (via Schneier On Security)
Surveillance is harmful because it can chill the exercise of our civil liberties, especially our intellectual privacy. It also gives the watcher power over the watched, creating the the risk of a variety of other harms, such as discrimination, coercion, and the threat of selective enforcement, where critics of the government can be prosecuted or blackmailed for wrongdoing unrelated to the purpose of the surveillance.
David Brin: Accelerating Dangers And Opportunities From Transparency

Bruce Schneier: The Internet Is A Surveillance State
The Generalized Sousveillance Society, with a definition of "sousveillance." How Wearable Sousveillance Cameras Will Transform Our Society. Sousveillance: When The Watched Become The Watchers.

Hi Haters!
Britney’s conundrum, however, is less an exception than an extreme depiction of what social media and surveillance bring everyone. And our response to this has been equally contradictory. Though the pressure falls unevenly on people according to gender and other factors, we are all now under similar forms of surveillance, which technological innovation seems geared toward intensifying.
posted by the man of twists and turns (23 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"The Internet Is A Surveillance State," previously.
"Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time."
- Snow Crash
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:34 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been of the opinion for some time that the answers are not black and white – surveillance or no surveillance – but a grey area where it is what kind of surveillance are we amenable to?

It would be unreasonable to say that the government can never search anyone's home or property. In matters of establishing fact and specifying punishment, search is required. It is then a matter of 1) when is search permissible, and 2) what are the controls in place to ensure search is conducted according to established rules.

Most problems of privacy are really governance problems. Technology is fast reaching the point where real-time information about everyone is going to be available, if one wants to take any of the benefits of modern technology. If the technology enables tracking like that, the controls must then be not on information collection – for information will be collected – but rather on how that information is used.

There is a tremendous upside to surveillance. Most people in heavily monitored areas know that, for the police have access to visual records that make short work of a lot of cases.

However, the downsides must be managed. If we are going to gain the benefits of surveillance, corruption must be minimised. For if the information is present, the only control is on access, and therefore the controls must be trusted. This makes surveillance not a technical pursuit, but a governance pursuit. If we can trust the people with the information, and if the information is used in accordance with transparent rules and dictums, then it is a Good Thing.

If some people can use it for their own purposes, and subvert the rights of others, it will quickly become a bad thing.

For similar examples, the doctrine of pre-emptive war can be a very powerful force for good in the world. If we do not have to wait until innocents are slaughtered before exercising force to contain a threat, the result is massively net positive. If, however, that system is circumvented by personal goals or desires (as has been seen recently, one could argue), then it is a very bad policy.

Essentially, any use of force – including information – must be governed by a common code agreed upon by all those under it's purview. And all must be held to equal standards under that purview.

Which brings the question "who is watching the watchers?" It would have been a very different matter for body scanners if there was a public feed of video from the watch room. If we could have seen the abuses going on within those rooms, the backlash may not have been against the technology, but against the governance. Without some kind of control, people will fear – perhaps rightly – the technology, when in actuality the technology is always amoral.
posted by nickrussell at 4:45 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

No passwords. This could be the most useful benefit from constant surveillance: no need for passwords or other identifiers, wherever you go, everything just knows that it’s you!

Wanting to create a panoptic police state just to avoid typing in your password seems a bit of a stretch. I mean, I'm lazy, but not *THAT* lazy.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:47 PM on April 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

If we were smart we'd all include 50-100 bytes of pure random stuff in every single email we send from now on. Drive the NSA and the *** (few are cleared to know even the acronym) just crazy!

37 43 67 54 64 61 21 4 23 5 48 61 5 76 57 13 31 21 7 5 18 52 58 40 57 10 62 35 29 54 23 22 42 57 52 39 9 46 63 52 17 30 56 26 39 69 4 11 4 19
posted by sammyo at 4:48 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

"what kind of surveillance society we should be fighting for"

This kind.
posted by markkraft at 5:02 PM on April 18, 2013

Not this kind, though.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:11 PM on April 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I will be reading some of these because this topic is relevant to my interests, but I want to quickly register my dislike of the world sousveillance. I prefer, if the top-down observance thing is a surveillance society, then the inverse is a surveillant society. But that's just me. Thanks for these links. I love speculating on this stuff.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:15 PM on April 18, 2013

Hmm, I don't really think what we have is the inverse of a surveillance society though, "sousveillance" is a ridiculous term but it gets across the novel nature of what's happening now. It's not that the powers that be are watching us all with no accountability but it sure as hell is not that we're all watching each other with equal power.
posted by pleurodirous at 5:39 PM on April 18, 2013

As with so many things of uncertain utility, sammyo, there's an emacs mode for that.
posted by hattifattener at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I dunno, but out of all the things we can do with our ever-increasing data warehousing and processing capabilities, there's no way to avoid small groups of privileged people wielding large amounts of power over everyone else based on their ability to exploit the data that we are and will be generating.

And when we use terms like sousveillance—the recording of an activity by a participant in the activity—to things like Glass, not only do we sound ridiculous but also conveniently (for them) focus on the person wearing it, and pay no attention to the man corporation behind the curtain.

tl,dr: Sousveillance welcomes our new panoptical overlords.

/takes off tinfoil hat
posted by frijole at 5:59 PM on April 18, 2013

Ah, it's David Brin and The Transparent Society all over again.

I first read The Transparent Society in maybe 5th grade actually and was pretty taken with the idea. The whole "tale of two cities" in the future gambit was compelling, and the whole thing was just so fresh and futuristic that it sucked me in. The super-transparent utopias in Brin's world sounded far preferable than life in Orwell's gloomy prison. Who wouldn't want to use a wristwatch computer to check around a dark corner late at night or have facial recognition alert a parent where a lost child has wandered off to?

But I was maybe 10 then and naive, and we've all grown up a little since then. What I couldn't see then was that Brin's two cities are a false dichotomy. Brin insisted that we were going to have to get telescreens soon enough anyway, so let's at least let them all be two-way and make the most of it. But why do we have to choose and is that even practical?

As Schneier pointed out over five years ago now, the inherent asymmetry between the watchers and the watched isn't going to vanish with transparency; more surveillance will make the watchers increasingly more powerful even as it provides some additional power to the rest of the public. A rising tide may lift all boats, but that cliche is of little comfort to the guy in a little kayak being swept up by a rising ocean liner. As Schneier explains:
If I disclose information to you, your power with respect to me increases. One way to address this power imbalance is for you to similarly disclose information to me. We both have less privacy, but the balance of power is maintained. But this mechanism fails utterly if you and I have different power levels to begin with.

An example will make this clearer. You're stopped by a police officer, who demands to see identification. Divulging your identity will give the officer enormous power over you: He or she can search police databases using the information on your ID; he or she can create a police record attached to your name; he or she can put you on this or that secret terrorist watch list. Asking to see the officer's ID in return gives you no comparable power over him or her. The power imbalance is too great, and mutual disclosure does not make it OK.
Similarly, in the commercial context, Google can track me all over the web and Experian can maintain files on my finances, and it does not me one lick of good to have some imaginary right to demand Larry Page's ad interest profile or learn that Experian bounced a check a few years ago.

At the end of the day, "the powerful," however that group is defined, will always be able to make far more use out of increased surveillance than the rest of us, even if we get a few fun perks like no more passwords or the ability to catch an extra someone misusing authority here and there.
posted by zachlipton at 6:02 PM on April 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

I think that the writers linked in this FPP are stuck in a kind of newtonian universe in terms of how they expect our computers and surveillance to be able to extract information from the world. There was a time when weather forecasters though that the challenge in making perfect weather predictions was just to get more and more accurate data. Newton thought the universe was going to be just a massive machine. Yet it turns out it is much more complicated. So to with all the cameras and transaction logging going on. We can make occasional breakthroughs, but most of the data is noisy and all the predictive stuff is ok for sending out mail order catalogs an amazon ads, but it fails when we try to apply it in most policy areas. Look at all the data mining in schools, it hasn't achieved anywhere near the improvement in individual outcomes we expected. Consider the shambles of the veterans administration trying to keep track of the complex disability profiles of each individual soldier. So I'm less afraid of the surveillance state actually succeeding than ever at any scale. The elites in North Korea have been able to make some of it work, but the standard of living for those elites vs. other more open countries is substantially lower.
Meanwhile I think we've tended to overlook the real privacy problems that exist today, while dwelling on the sci-fi future and fear of the state. As an example consider the rise of revenge porn. It seems like that's a much problem than the use of license plate readers by the police to monitor traffic.
posted by humanfont at 7:13 PM on April 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Okay, I'm not sure where I read this anecdote and it must be a pure fabrication, but I think it's illustrative.

A late 19th century, western diplomat/dignitary was visiting some exotic, far east country. He was interested in seeing the countryside so his host took him out on a leisurely wagon ride outside the city. Well into his trip, he spotted two women bathing in a pond near the road side. They were fairly immodest and unashamed in their nakeness. Outraged, the westerner immediately halted the wagon and stood to get a better look at what was going on. He asked his host, "My God! Isn't it scandalous for women to appear naked in plain view in your country?" His host replied, "Well, no. Not really. But standing there and and taking notice of them sure as hell is."

I doubt anyone will be able maintain their anonymity much longer, but I'm hopeful we'll be able to rely on new mores to protect our privacy.
posted by klarck at 5:48 AM on April 19, 2013

Who has it correct, Orwell (1984) or Huxley (Brave New World)? These two novels have historically been used to compare contemporary society. Those societies aren't mutually exclusive.

We have ultimate surveillance, where citizens police one-another, and even their own thoughts, yet we also have "everything you ever wanted" at your fingertips 24x7.
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 6:16 AM on April 20, 2013

Reason: Brian K. Vaughan’s New Digital Comic, The Private Eye, Is a Brilliant Riff on a Post-Privacy Future - "The new digital comic paints wild picture of life after a privacy apocalypse."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:54 AM on April 20, 2013

"Public/Private is a game that explores the topic of privacy in our cities by focusing on where we find it.

By choosing where and how often you seek privacy in your city, you create a unique visual graph that can be compared with results from others in your city and from cities around the world."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:09 PM on April 20, 2013

Crowd Sourcing Big Brother
This series of events served as an important lesson about the government’s surveillance capabilities. Almost no event in a modern U.S. city, no less a major sports event, goes unrecorded today. But, apart from some security and traffic enforcement cameras, it’s not the government doing the recording. It’s us. We’re constantly taking pictures and movies of ourselves and our friends, sometimes posting them on social media sites and helpfully tagging our locations and the names of our acquaintances. And when the government asks for them as evidence in a case, we eagerly comply.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:09 AM on April 22, 2013

Affective Privacy And Surveillance
Since no spaces are private anymore in the sense of being unobservable, all that is left is the illusion of it. “Privacy … has nothing to do with escaping the gaze,” Bogard insists. Being disconnected from the network, away from the screen, doesn’t feel like privacy and isn’t an option for it; it’s just desolate isolation, social death.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:15 PM on April 30, 2013

As an example consider the rise of revenge porn. It seems like that's a much problem than the use of license plate readers by the police to monitor traffic.

Speaking of which:

Standing Up to a Revenge Porn Tormentor: Holly Jacobs has finally come forward and is filing the first ever criminal case against a faceless revenge porn distributor--who she believes is in fact her ex.
posted by homunculus at 3:54 PM on May 1, 2013

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