The Surveillance State Doesn't Have to Be an Orwellian Nightmare

As long as it flows in both directions.

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May 19 2014, 12:22pm
Image: Shutterstock

George Orwell, the sci-fi crowd, even elf-hugging J. R. R. Tolkien, warned of total surveillance powers concentrated in the hands of totalitarian spooks. Then Edward Snowden's revelations seemed to vindicate these dystopian predictions and aroused widespread recognition that our lives are becoming less and less private.

Now, warrantless NSA data collection is part of a much broader deterioration of privacy in the digital age. 

Some consumers are texting meticulous instructions to their refrigerators; there's a smart toaster that “talks” with other kitchen devices to determine if it is being underused; farmers might inject animals with chips to track food intake; refrigerator hacks could become a mundane reality.

The Internet of Things will collect even more data, transmitting a detailed picture of our daily lives. And if the rise of the Google and Facebook freemium models are any indication, this information will be at the disposal of the server owners.

Now, open data can be useful; ubiquitous computing will usher in unheard of conveniences and efficiencies. But there’s a lot of room for abuse. For Fourth Amendment supporters—or anyone who wants the option to opt-out of being subject to this intrusive data-collection measures—this is a nightmarish trajectory. Especially considering the lukewarm NSA "reform" efforts coming out of Washington.

But lets step back a second. Our political situation is a far cry from the all-encompassing surveillance state Orwell predicted. And, if open information does continue in that direction, would it necessarily be so bad?

Wired's Kevin Kelly recently offered a controversial opinion:

Most likely, 50 years from now ubiquitous monitoring and surveillance will be the norm. The internet is a tracking machine. It is engineered to track. We will ceaselessly self-track and be tracked by the greater network, corporations, and governments. Everything that can be measured is already tracked, and all that was previously unmeasureable is becoming quantified, digitized, and trackable.

So our central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon—or a mutual, transparent kind of “coveillance” that involves watching the watchers. The first option is hell, the second redeemable.

“Coveillance” and "sousveillance" are in early development. Mobile phone cameras are already used to record misbehaving cops; now some places are testing or deploying wearable cameras to surveil police. Some of us might even clip “life recorders” like the Narrative Clip to our chests to film and log our every move.

There is reasonable hope for a flow of surveillance in both directions, as sci-fi author David Brin depicts in his book The Transparent Society. Forced transparency may not all bad, as long as there is reverse scrutiny and citizens respond to their governments in kind. Humans have been known to adapt to technological sea changes. Maybe we could rest easy countersurveiling our surveillers.

Recording police interactions with the public supposedly curbs law enforcement abuse; complaints against police dropped 88 percent when a California city adopted the devices. And we can probably anticipate more whistleblowing from disenchanted government employees after Snowden broke the seal. 

But there is a hole in this narrative. The market, or at least a small share of it, has responded to surveillance concerns with privacy-minded products. Namely, encrypted, anonymous, privacy-focused communication services. There's Tor, Tails, and PGP, cyptocat for private internet chat. Since tackling email, Silent Circle developers have moved to mobile phones, releasing products like the Blackphone and the so-called “Snowden phone.” How might this mushrooming market click into the future market?

At this stage, encrypted communication devices are (very) imperfect products. Users need to invest some time learn how to use them, and while they will certainly make snooping harder for third parties, they are not resistant to prying eyes.

But gradual progress is progress. There seems to be no end to the projects. Hardly a week goes by without a new tweak in an "NSA proof" email, phone, chat, or browsing device. Many developers are working on user-friendly products intended to eventually reach a larger share of the market. Privacy is fashionable.

So will the masses fight surveillance with privacy, or more surveillance? It's too soon to tell. It's impossible to say how long the post-Snowden support and momentum that seems to be carrying these projects will last.

Whatever system prevails, it's not unreasonable to expect that some system of checks and balances will work itself out. George Orwell envisioned asymmetric control. The cornucopia of new technologies and the choices they bring give us reason to suspect something else.