Sunday, October 20, 2013

Total Surveillance is the Perfection of Democracy

For once I disagree with RMS, re:

I believe that it is fundamentally not possible to "roll back" the degree of surveillance in our [global] society in an effective way.  Our technology is already converging to a near-total degree of surveillance all on its own.  The article itself gives many examples.  The end limit will be Vinge's "locator dust" or perhaps something even more ubiquitous and ephemeral.  RMS advocates several "band-aid" fixes but seems to miss the logical structure of the paradox of inescapable total surveillance.

Let me attempt to illustrate this paradox.  Take this quote from the article:
"If whistleblowers don't dare reveal crimes and lies, we lose the last shred of effective control over our government and institutions."
(First of all we should reject the underlying premise that "our government and institutions" are only held in check by the fear of the discovery of their "crimes and lies".  We can, and should, and must, hold ourselves and our government to a standard of not committing crimes, not telling lies.  It is this Procrustean bed of good character that our technology is binding us to, not some dystopian nightmare.)

Certainly the criminally-minded who have inveigled their way into the halls of power should not be permitted to sleep peacefully at night, without concern for discovery.  But why assume that ubiquitous surveillance would not touch them?  Why would the sensor/processor nets and deep analysis not be useful, and used, for detecting and combating treachery?  What "crimes and lies" would be revealed by a whistleblower that would not show up on the intel-feeds?

Or this quote:
"Everyone must be free to post photos and video recordings occasionally, but the systematic accumulation of such data on the Internet must be limited."
How will this limiting be done?  What authority will decide who gets to post what and when?  And (like any profanity filter) won't this authority need to see the content to be able to decide whether it gets posted publicly?

In effect, doesn't this idea imply some sort of ubiquitous surveillance system to ensure that people are obeying the rules for preventing a ubiquitous surveillance system?

Let's say we set up some rules like the ones RMS is advocating, how do we determine that everyone is following those rules?  After all, there is a very good incentive for trying to get a privileged position vis-a-vis these rules.  Whoever has the inside edge, whether official spooks, enemy agents, or just criminals, gains an enormous competitive advantage over everyone else.

Someone is going to have that edge, because it's a technological thing, you can't make it go away simply because you don't like it.  If the "good guys" tie their own hands (by handicapping their surveillance networks) then we are just handing control to the people who are willing to do what it takes to take it.

You can't unilaterally declare that we (all humanity) will use the kid-friendly "lite" version of the surveillance network because we cannot be sure that everyone is playing by those rules unless we have a "full" version of the surveillance network to check up on everybody!

We can't (I believe) prevent total surveillance but we can certainly control how the data are used, and we can certainly set up systems that allow the data to be used without being abused.  The system must be recursive.  Whatever form the system takes, it shall necessarily have to be able to detect and correct its own self-abuses.

Total surveillance is the perfection of democracy, not its antithesis.

The true horror of technological omniscience is that it shall force us for once to live according to our own rules.  For the first time in history we shall have to do without hypocrisy and privilege.  The new equilibrium will not involve tilting at the windmills of ubiquitous sensors and processing power but rather learning what explicit rules we can actually live by, finding, in effect, the real shape of human society.