I am only a small minnow in the technology ocean, but since it is my natural habitat, I want to make an effort to describe it to you.
As computer programmers, our formative intellectual experience is working with deterministic systems that have been designed by other human beings. These can be very complex, but the complexity is not the kind we find in the natural world. It is ultimately always tractable. Find the right abstractions, and the puzzle box opens before you.
The feeling of competence, control and delight in discovering a clever twist that solves a difficult problem is what makes being a computer programmer sometimes enjoyable.
But as anyone who's worked with tech people knows, this intellectual background can also lead to arrogance. People who excel at software design become convinced that they have a unique ability to understand any kind of system at all, from first principles, without prior training, thanks to their superior powers of analysis. Success in the artificially constructed world of software design promotes a dangerous confidence.
Today we are embarked on a great project to make computers a part of everyday life. As Marc Andreessen memorably frames it, "software is eating the world". And those of us writing the software expect to be greeted as liberators.
Our intentions are simple and clear. First we will instrument, then we will analyze, then we will optimize. And you will thank us.
But the real world is a stubborn place. It is complex in ways that resist abstraction and modeling. It notices and reacts to our attempts to affect it. Nor can we hope to examine it objectively from the outside, any more than we can step out of our own skin.
The connected world we're building may resemble a computer system, but really it's just the regular old world from before, with a bunch of microphones and keyboards and flat screens sticking out of it. And it has the same old problems.
Approaching the world as a software problem is a category error that has led us into some terrible habits of mind.
BAD MENTAL HABITS
First, programmers are trained to seek maximal and global solutions. Why solve a specific problem in one place when you can fix the general problem for everybody, and for all time? We don't think of this as hubris, but as a laudable economy of effort. And the startup funding culture of big risk, big reward encourages this grandiose mode of thinking. There is powerful social pressure to avoid incremental change, particularly any change that would require working with people outside tech and treating them as intellectual equals.
Second, treating the world as a software project gives us a rationale for being selfish. The old adage has it that if you are given ten minutes to cut down a tree, you should spend the first five sharpening your axe. We are used to the idea of bootstrapping ourselves into a position of maximum leverage before tackling a problem.
In the real world, this has led to a pathology where the tech sector maximizes its own comfort. You don't have to go far to see this. Hop on BART after the conference and take a look at Oakland, or take a stroll through downtown San Francisco and try to persuade yourself you're in the heart of a boom that has lasted for forty years. You'll see a residential theme park for tech workers, surrounded by areas of poverty and misery that have seen no benefit and ample harm from our presence. We pretend that by maximizing our convenience and productivity, we're hastening the day when we finally make life better for all those other people.
Third, treating the world as software promotes fantasies of control. And the best kind of control is control without responsibility. Our unique position as authors of software used by millions gives us power, but we don't accept that this should make us accountable. We're programmers—who else is going to write the software that runs the world? To put it plainly, we are surprised that people seem to get mad at us for trying to help.
Fortunately we are smart people and have found a way out of this predicament. Instead of relying on algorithms, which we can be accused of manipulating for our benefit, we have turned to machine learning, an ingenious way of disclaiming responsibility for anything. Machine learning is like money laundering for bias. It's a clean, mathematical apparatus that gives the status quo the aura of logical inevitability. The numbers don't lie.
Of course, people obsessed with control have to eventually confront the fact of their own extinction. The response of the tech world to death has been enthusiastic. We are going to fix it. Google Ventures, for example, is seriously funding research into immortality. Their head VC will call you a "deathist" for pointing out that this is delusional.
Such fantasies of control come with a dark side. Witness the current anxieties about an artificial superintelligence, or Elon Musk's apparently sincere belief that we're living in a simulation. For a computer programmer, that's the ultimate loss of control. Instead of writing the software, you are the software.
We obsess over these fake problems while creating some real ones.
In our attempt to feed the world to software, techies have built the greatest surveillance apparatus the world has ever seen. Unlike earlier efforts, this one is fully mechanized and in a large sense autonomous. Its power is latent, lying in the vast amounts of permanently stored personal data about entire populations.
We started out collecting this information by accident, as part of our project to automate everything, but soon realized that it had economic value. We could use it to make the process self-funding. And so mechanized surveillance has become the economic basis of the modern tech industry.
Surveillance capitalism has some of the features of a zero-sum game. The actual value of the data collected is not clear, but it is definitely an advantage to collect more than your rivals do. Because human beings develop an immune response to new forms of tracking and manipulation, the only way to stay successful is to keep finding novel ways to peer into people's private lives. And because much of the surveillance economy is funded by speculators, there is an incentive to try flashy things that will capture the speculators' imagination, and attract their money.
This creates a ratcheting effect where the behavior of ever more people is tracked ever more closely, and the collected information retained, in the hopes that further dollars can be squeezed out of it.
Just like industrialized manufacturing changed the relationship between labor and capital, surveillance capitalism is changing the relationship between private citizens and the entities doing the tracking. Our old ideas about individual privacy and consent no longer hold in a world where personal data is harvested on an industrial scale.
Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing.
Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.
Many of you had to obtain a US visa to attend this conference. The customs service announced yesterday it wants to start asking people for their social media profiles. Imagine trying to attend your next conference without a LinkedIn profile, and explaining to the American authorities why you are so suspiciously off the grid.
The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.
We're used to talking about the private and public sector in the real economy, but in the surveillance economy this boundary doesn't exist. Much of the day-to-day work of surveillance is done by telecommunications firms, which have a close relationship with government. The techniques and software of surveillance are freely shared between practitioners on both sides. All of the major players in the surveillance economy cooperate with their own country's intelligence agencies, and are spied on (very effectively) by all the others.
As a technologist, this state of affairs gives me the feeling of living in a forest that is filling up with dry, dead wood. The very personal, very potent information we're gathering about people never goes away, only accumulates. I don't want to see the fire come, but at the same time, I can't figure out a way to persuade other people of the great danger.
So I try to spin scenarios.
THE INEVITABLE LIST OF SCARY SCENARIOS
One of the candidates running for President this year has promised to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, as well as block Muslims from entering the country altogether. Try to imagine this policy enacted using the tools of modern technology. The FBI would subpoena Facebook for information on every user born abroad. Email and phone conversations would be monitored to check for the use of Arabic or Spanish, and sentiment analysis applied to see if the participants sounded "nervous". Social networks, phone metadata, and cell phone tracking would lead police to nests of hiding immigrants.
We could do a really good job deporting people if we put our minds to it.
Or consider the other candidate running for President, the one we consider the sane alternative, who has been a longtime promoter of a system of extrajudicial murder that uses blanket surveillance of cell phone traffic, email, and social media to create lists of people to be tracked and killed with autonomous aircraft. The system presumably includes points of human control (we don't know because it's secret), but there's no reason in principle it could not be automated. Get into the wrong person's car in Yemen, and you lose your life.
That this toolchain for eliminating enemies of the state is only allowed to operate in poor, remote places is a comfort to those of us who live elsewhere, but you can imagine scenarios where a mass panic would broaden its scope.
Or imagine what the British surveillance state, already the worst in Europe, is going to look like in two years, when it's no longer bound by the protections of European law, and economic crisis has driven the country further into xenophobia.
Or take an example from my home country, Poland. Abortion has been illegal in Poland for some time, but the governing party wants to tighten restrictions on abortion by investigating every miscarriage as a potential crime. Women will basically be murder suspects if they lose their baby. Imagine government agents combing your Twitter account, fitness tracker logs, credit card receipts and private communications for signs of potential pregnancy, with the results reported to the police to proactively protect your unborn baby.
We tend to imagine dystopian scenarios as one where a repressive government uses technology against its people. But what scares me in these scenarios is that each one would have broad social support, possibly majority support. Democratic societies sometimes adopt terrible policies.
When we talk about the moral economy of tech, we must confront the fact that we have created a powerful tool of social control. Those who run the surveillance apparatus understand its capabilities in a way the average citizen does not. My greatest fear is seeing the full might of the surveillance apparatus unleashed against a despised minority, in a democratic country.
What we've done as technologists is leave a loaded gun lying around, in the hopes that no one will ever pick it up and use it.
The first step towards a better tech economy is humility and recognition of limits. It's time to hold technology politically accountable for its promises. I am very suspicious of attempts to change the world that can't first work on a local scale. If after decades we can't improve quality of life in places where the tech élite actually lives, why would we possibly make life better anywhere else?
We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can't fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we'll have someplace to live.
Techies will complain that trivial problems of life in the Bay Area are hard because they involve politics. But they should involve politics. Politics is the thing we do to keep ourselves from murdering each other. In a world where everyone uses computers and software, we need to exercise democratic control over that software.
Second, the surveillance economy is way too dangerous. Even if you trust everyone spying on you right now, the data they're collecting will eventually be stolen or bought by people who scare you. We have no ability to secure large data collections over time.
The goal should be not to make the apparatus of surveillance politically accountable (though that is a great goal), but to dismantle it. Just like we don't let countries build reactors that produce plutonium, no matter how sincere their promises not to misuse it, we should not allow people to create and indefinitely store databases of personal information. The risks are too high.
I think a workable compromise will be to allow all kinds of surveillance, but limit what anyone is allowed to store or sell.
More broadly, we have to stop treating computer technology as something unprecedented in human history. Not every year is Year Zero. This is not the first time an enthusiastic group of nerds has decided to treat the rest of the world as a science experiment. Earlier attempts to create a rationalist Utopia failed for interesting reasons, and since we bought those lessons at a great price, it would be a shame not to learn them.
There is also prior art in attempts at achieving immortality, limitless wealth, and Galactic domination. We even know what happens if you try to keep dossiers on an entire country.
If we're going to try all these things again, let's at least learn from our past, so we can fail in interesting new ways, instead of failing in the same exasperating ways as last time.
Suddenly, it feels like 2000 again. Back then, surveillance programs like [Carnivore](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnivore_(software%29), Echelon, and Total Information Awareness helped spark a surge in electronic privacy awareness. Now a decade later, the recent discovery of programs like [PRISM](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PRISM_(surveillance_program%29), Boundless Informant, and FISA orders are catalyzing renewed concern.
The programs of the past can be characterized as “proximate” surveillance, in which the government attempted to use technology to directly monitor communication themselves. The programs of this decade mark the transition to “oblique” surveillance, in which the government more often just goes to the places where information has been accumulating on its own, such as email providers, search engines, social networks, and telecoms.
Both then and now, privacy advocates have typically come into conflict with a persistent tension, in which many individuals don’t understand why they should be concerned about surveillance if they have nothing to hide. It’s even less clear in the world of “oblique” surveillance, given that apologists will always frame our use of information-gathering services like a mobile phone plan or GMail as a choice.
We’re All One Big Criminal Conspiracy
As James Duane, a professor at Regent Law School and former defense attorney, notes in his excellent lecture on why it is never a good idea to talk to the police:
Estimates of the current size of the body of federal criminal law vary. It has been reported that the Congressional Research Service cannot even count the current number of federal crimes. These laws are scattered in over 50 titles of the United States Code, encompassing roughly 27,000 pages. Worse yet, the statutory code sections often incorporate, by reference, the provisions and sanctions of administrative regulations promulgated by various regulatory agencies under congressional authorization. Estimates of how many such regulations exist are even less well settled, but the ABA thinks there are “[n]early 10,000.”
If the federal government can’t even count how many laws there are, what chance does an individual have of being certain that they are not acting in violation of one of them?
As Supreme Court Justice Breyer elaborates:
The complexity of modern federal criminal law, codified in several thousand sections of the United States Code and the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some such investigation.
For instance, did you know that it is a federal crime to be in possession of a lobster under a certain size? It doesn’t matter if you bought it at a grocery store, if someone else gave it to you, if it’s dead or alive, if you found it after it died of natural causes, or even if you killed it while acting in self defense. You can go to jail because of a lobster.
If the federal government had access to every email you’ve ever written and every phone call you’ve ever made, it’s almost certain that they could find something you’ve done which violates a provision in the 27,000 pages of federal statues or 10,000 administrative regulations. You probably do have something to hide, you just don’t know it yet.
We Should Have Something To Hide
Over the past year, there have been a number of headline-grabbing legal changes in the US, such as the legalization of marijuana in CO and WA, as well as the legalization of same-sex marriage in a growing number of US states.
As a majority of people in these states apparently favor these changes, advocates for the US democratic process cite these legal victories as examples of how the system can provide real freedoms to those who engage with it through lawful means. And it’s true, the bills did pass.
What’s often overlooked, however, is that these legal victories would probably not have been possible without the ability to break the law.
The state of Minnesota, for instance, legalized same-sex marriage this year, but sodomy laws had effectively made homosexuality itself completely illegal in that state until 2001. Likewise, before the recent changes making marijuana legal for personal use in WA and CO, it was obviously not legal for personal use.
Imagine if there were an alternate dystopian reality where law enforcement was 100% effective, such that any potential law offenders knew they would be immediately identified, apprehended, and jailed. If perfect law enforcement had been a reality in MN, CO, and WA since their founding in the 1850s, it seems quite unlikely that these recent changes would have ever come to pass. How could people have decided that marijuana should be legal, if nobody had ever used it? How could states decide that same sex marriage should be permitted, if nobody had ever seen or participated in a same sex relationship?
The cornerstone of liberal democracy is the notion that free speech allows us to create a marketplace of ideas, from which we can use the political process to collectively choose the society we want. Most critiques of this system tend to focus on the ways in which this marketplace of ideas isn’t totally free, such as the ways in which some actors have substantially more influence over what information is distributed than others.
The more fundamental problem, however, is that living in an existing social structure creates a specific set of desires and motivations in a way that merely talking about other social structures never can. The world we live in influences not just what we think, but how we think, in a way that a discourse about other ideas isn’t able to. Any teenager can tell you that life’s most meaningful experiences aren’t the ones you necessarily desired, but the ones that actually transformed your very sense of what you desire.
We can only desire based on what we know. It is our present experience of what we are and are not able to do that largely determines our sense for what is possible. This is why same sex relationships, in violation of sodomy laws, were a necessary precondition for the legalization of same sex marriage. This is also why those maintaining positions of power will always encourage the freedom to talk about ideas, but never to act.
Technology And Law Enforcement
Law enforcement used to be harder. If a law enforcement agency wanted to track someone, it required physically assigning a law enforcement agent to follow that person around. Tracking everybody would be inconceivable, because it would require having as many law enforcement agents as people.
Today things are very different. Almost everyone carries a tracking device (their mobile phone) at all times, which reports their location to a handful of telecoms, which are required by law to provide that information to the government. Tracking everyone is no longer inconceivable, and is in fact happening all the time. We know that Sprint alone responded to 8 million law enforcement requests for real time customer location just in 2008. They got so many requests that they built an automated system to handle them.
Combined with ballooning law enforcement budgets, this trend towards automation, which includes things like license plate scanners and domestically deployed drones, represents a significant shift in the way that law enforcement operates.
Police already abuse the immense power they have, but if everyone’s every action were being monitored, and everyone technically violates some obscure law at some time, then punishment becomes purely selective. Those in power will essentially have what they need to punish anyone they’d like, whenever they choose, as if there were no rules at all.
Even ignoring this obvious potential for new abuse, it’s also substantially closer to that dystopian reality of a world where law enforcement is 100% effective, eliminating the possibility to experience alternative ideas that might better suit us.
Some will say that it’s necessary to balance privacy against security, and that it’s important to find the right compromise between the two. Even if you believe that, a good negotiator doesn’t begin a conversation with someone whose position is at the exact opposite extreme by leading with concessions.
And that’s exactly what we’re dealing with. Not a balance of forces which are looking for the perfect compromise between security and privacy, but an enormous steam roller built out of careers and billions in revenue from surveillance contracts and technology. To negotiate with that, we can’t lead with concessions, but rather with all the opposition we can muster.
All The Opposition We Can Muster
Even if you believe that voting is more than a selection of meaningless choices designed to mask the true lack of agency we have, there is a tremendous amount of money and power and influence on the other side of this equation. So don’t just vote or petition.
To the extent that we’re “from the internet,” we have a certain amount of power of our own that we can leverage within this domain. It is possible to develop user-friendly technical solutions that would stymie this type of surveillance. I help work on Open Source security and privacy apps at Open Whisper Systems, but we all have a long ways to go. If you’re concerned, please consider finding some way to directly oppose this burgeoning worldwide surveillance industry (we could use help at Open Whisper Systems!). It’s going to take all of us.
Losing a war is never a pretty situation. So it is no wonder that most people do not like to acknowledge that we have lost. We had a reasonable chance to tame the wild beast of universal surveillance technology, approximately until september 10th, 2001. One day later, we had lost. All the hopes we had, to keep the big corporations and “security forces” at bay and develop interesting alternative concepts in the virtual world, evaporated with the smoke clouds of the World Trade Center.
Just right before, everything looked not too bad. We had survived Y2K with barely a scratch. The world’s outlook was mildly optimistic after all. The “New Economy” bubble gave most of us fun things to do and the fleeting hope of plenty of cash not so far down the road. We had won the Clipper-Chip battle, and crypto-regulation as we knew it was a thing of the past. The waves of technology development seemed to work in favor of freedom, most of the time. The future looked like a yellow brick road to a nirvana of endless bandwith, the rule of ideas over matter and dissolving nation states. The big corporations were at our mercy because we knew what the future would look like and we had the technology to built it. Those were the days. Remember them for your grandchildren’s bedtime stories. They will never come back again.
We are now deep inside the other kind of future, the future that we speculated about as a worst case scenario, back then. This is the ugly future, the one we never wanted, the one that we fought to prevent. We failed. Probably it was not even our fault. But we are forced to live in it now.
Democracy is already over
By its very nature the western democracies have become a playground for lobbyists, industry interests and conspiracies that have absolutely no interest in real democracy. The “democracy show” must go on nonetheless. Conveniently, the show consumes the energy of those that might otherwise become dangerous to the status quo. The show provides the necessary excuse when things go wrong and keeps up the illusion of participation. Also, the system provides organized and regulated battleground rules to find out which interest groups and conspiracies have the upper hand for a while. Most of the time it prevents open and violent power struggles that could destabilize everything. So it is in the best interest of most players to keep at least certain elements of the current “democracy show” alive. Even for the more evil conspiracies around, the system is useful as it is. Certainly, the features that could provide unpleasant surprises like direct popular votes on key issues are the least likely to survive in the long run.
Of course, those in power want to minimize the influence of random chaotic outbursts of popular will as much as possible. The real decisions in government are not made by ministers or the parliament. The real power of government rests with the undersecretaries and other high-level, non-elected civil servants who stay while the politicians come and go. Especially in the bureaucracies of the intelligence agencies, the ministry of interior, the military, and other key nodes of power the long-term planning and decision-making is not left to the incompetent mediocre political actors that get elected more or less at random. Long term stability is a highly valued thing in power relations. So even if the politicians of states suddenly start to be hostile to each other, their intelligence agencies will often continue to cooperate and trade telecommunication interception results as if nothing has happened.
Let’s try for a minute to look at the world from the perspective of such an 60-year-old bureaucrat that has access to the key data, the privilege to be paid to think ahead, and the task to prepare the policy for the next decades. What he would see, could look like this:
paid manual labor will be eaten away further by technology, even more rapidly than today. Robotics will evolve far enough to kill a sizeable chunk of the remaining low-end manual jobs. Of course, there will be new jobs, servicing the robots, biotech, designing stuff, working on the nanotech developments etc. But these will be few, compared with today, and require higher education. Globalization continues its merciless course and will also export a lot of jobs of the brain-labor type to India and China, as soon as education levels there permit it.
So the western societies will end up with a large percentage of population, at least a third, but possibly half of those in working age, having no real paid work. There are those whose talents are cheaper to be had elsewhere, those who are more inclined to manual labor. Not only the undereducated but all those who simply cannot find a decent job anymore. This part of the population needs to be pacified, either by Disney or by Dictatorship, most probably by both. The unemployment problem severely affects the ability of states to pay for social benefits. At some point it becomes cheaper to put money into repressive police forces and rule by fear than put the money into pay-outs to the unemployed population and buy the social peace. Criminal activities look more interesting when there is no decent job to be had. Violence is the unavoidable consequence of degrading social standards. Universal surveillance might dampen the consequences for those who remain with some wealth to defend.
climate change increases the frequency and devastation of natural disasters, creating large scale emergency situations. Depending on geography, large parts of land may become uninhabitable due to draught, flood, fires or plagues. This creates a multitude of unpleasant effects. A large number of people need to move, crop and animal production shrinks, industrial centers and cities may be damaged to the point where abandoning them is the only sensible choice left. The loss of property like non-usable (or non-insurable) real estate will be frightening. The resulting internal migratory pressures towards “safe areas” become a significant problem. Properly trained personal, equipment, and supplies to respond to environmental emergencies are needed standby all the time, eating up scarce government resources. The conscript parts of national armed forces may be formed into disaster relief units as they hang around anyway with no real job to do except securing fossil energy sources abroad and helping out the border police.
immigration pressure from neighboring regions will raise in all western countries. It looks like the climate disaster will strike worst at first in areas like Africa and Latin America and the economy there is unlikely to cope any better than the western countries with globalization and other problems ahead. So the number of people who want to leave from there to somewhere inhabitable at all costs will rise substantially. The western countries need a certain amount of immigration to fill up their demographic holes but the number of people who want to come will be far higher. Managing a controlled immigration process according to the demographic needs is a nasty task where things can only go wrong most of the time. The nearly unavoidable reaction will be a Fortress Europe: serious border controls and fortifications, frequent and omnipresent internal identity checks, fast and merciless deportation of illegal immigrants, biometrics on every possible corner. Technology for border control can be made quite efficient once ethical hurdles have fallen.
at some point in the next decades the energy crisis will strike with full force. Oil will cost a fortune as production capacities can no longer be extended economically to meet the rising demand. Natural gas and coal will last a bit longer, a nuclear renaissance may dampen the worst of the pains. But the core fact remains: a massive change in energy infrastructure is unavoidable. Whether the transition will be harsh, painful and society-wrecking, or just annoying and expensive depends on how soon before peak oil the investments into new energy systems start on a massive scale as oil becomes to expensive to burn. Procrastination is a sure recipe for disaster. The geo-strategic and military race for the remaining large reserves of oil has already begun and will cost vast resources.
we are on the verge of technology developments that may require draconic restrictions and controls to prevent the total disruption of society. Genetic engineering and other biotechnology as well as nanotechnology (and potentially free energy technologies if they exist) will put immense powers into the hands of skilled and knowledgeable individuals. Given the general raise in paranoia, most people (and for sure those in power) will not continue to trust that common sense will prevent the worst. There will be a tendency of controls that keep this kind of technology in the hands of “trustworthy” corporations or state entities. These controls, of course, need to be enforced, surveillance of the usual suspects must be put in place to get advanced knowledge of potential dangers. Science may no longer be a harmless, self-regulating thing but something that needs to be tightly controlled and regulated, at least in the critical areas. The measures needed to contain a potential global pandemic from the Strange Virus of the Year are just a subset of those needed to contain a nanotech or biotech disaster.
Now what follows from this view of the world? What changes to society are required to cope with these trends from the viewpoint of our 60-year-old power brokering bureaucrat?
Strategically it all points to massive investments into internal security.
Presenting the problem to the population as a mutually exclusive choice between an uncertain dangerous freedom and an assured survival under the securing umbrella of the trustworthy state becomes more easy the further the various crises develop. The more wealthy parts of the population will certainly require protection from illegal immigrants, criminals, terrorists and implicitly also from the anger of less affluent citizens. And since the current system values rich people more then poor ones, the rich must get their protection. The security industry will certainly be of happy helpful assistance, especially where the state can no longer provide enough protection for the taste of the lucky ones.
Traditional democratic values have been eroded to the point where most people don’t care anymore. So the loss of rights our ancestors fought for not so long ago is at first happily accepted by a majority that can easily be scared into submission. “Terrorism” is the theme of the day, others will follow. And these “themes” can and will be used to mold the western societies into something that has never been seen before: a democratically legitimated police state, ruled by an unaccountable elite with total surveillance, made efficient and largely unobtrusive by modern technology. With the enemy (immigrants, terrorists, climate catastrophe refugees, criminals, the poor, mad scientists, strange diseases) at the gates, the price that needs to be paid for “security” will look acceptable.
Cooking up the “terrorist threat” by apparently stupid foreign policy and senseless intelligence operations provides a convenient method to get through with the establishment of a democratically legitimized police state. No one cares that car accidents alone kill many more people than terrorists do. The fear of terrorism accelerates the changes in society and provides the means to get the suppression tools required for the coming waves of trouble.
What we call today “anti-terrorism measures” is the long-term planned and conscious preparation of those in power for the kind of world described above.
The Technologies of Oppression
We can imagine most of the surveillance and oppression technology rather well. Blanket CCTV coverage is reality in some cities already. Communication pattern analysis (who talks to whom at what times) is frighteningly effective. Movement pattern recording from cellphones, traffic monitoring systems, and GPS tracking is the next wave that is just beginning. Shopping records (online, credit and rebate cards) are another source of juicy data. The integration of all these data sources into automated behavior pattern analysis currently happens mostly on the dark side.
The key question for establishing an effective surveillance based police state is to keep it low-profile enough that “the ordinary citizen” feels rather protected than threatened, at least until all the pieces are in place to make it permanent. First principle of 21st century police state: All those who “have nothing to hide” should not be bothered unnecessarily. This goal becomes even more complicated as with the increased availability of information on even minor everyday infringements the “moral” pressure to prosecute will rise. Intelligence agencies have always understood that effective work with interception results requires a thorough selection between cases where it is necessary to do something and those (the majority) where it is best to just be silent and enjoy.
Police forces in general (with a few exceptions) on the other hand have the duty to act upon every crime or minor infringement they get knowledge of. Of course, they have a certain amount of discretion already. With access to all the information outlined above, we will end up with a system of selective enforcement. It is impossible to live in a complex society without violating a rule here and there from time to time, often even without noticing it. If all these violations are documented and available for prosecution, the whole fabric of society changes dramatically. The old sign for totalitarian societies – arbitrary prosecution of political enemies – becomes a reality within the framework of democratic rule-of-law states. As long as the people affected can be made looking like the enemy-”theme” of the day, the system can be used to silence opposition effectively. And at some point the switch to open automated prosecution and policing can be made as any resistance to the system is by definition “terrorism”. Development of society comes to a standstill, the rules of the law and order paradise can no longer be violated.
Now disentangling ourselves from the reality tunnel of said 60-year-old bureaucrat, where is hope for freedom, creativity and fun? To be honest, we need to assume that it will take a couple of decades before the pendulum will swing back into the freedom direction, barring a total breakdown of civilization as we know it. Only when the oppression becomes to burdensome and open, there might be a chance to get back to overall progress of mankind earlier. If the powers that be are able to manage the system smoothly and skillfully, we cannot make any prediction as to when the new dark ages will be over.
So what now?
Move to the mountains, become a gardener or carpenter, search for happiness in communities of like minded people, in isolation from the rest of the world? The idea has lost its charm for most who ever honestly tried. It may work if you can find eternal happiness in milking cows at five o’clock in the morning. But for the rest of us, the only realistic option is to try to live in, with, and from the world as bad it has become. We need to built our own communities nonetheless, virtual or real ones.
The politics & lobby game
So where to put your energy then? Trying to play the political game, fighting against software patents, surveillance laws, and privacy invasions in parliament and the courts can be the job of a lifetime. It has the advantage that you will win a battle from time to time and can probably slow things down. You may even be able to prevent a gross atrocity here and there. But in the end, the development of technology and the panic level of the general population will chew a lot of your victories for breakfast.
This is not to discount the work and dedication of those of us who fight on this front. But you need to have a lawyers mindset and a very strong frustration tolerance to gain satisfaction from it, and that is not given to everyone. We need the lawyers nonetheless.
Talent and Ethics
Some of us sold their soul, maybe to pay the rent when the bubble bursted and the cool and morally easy jobs became scarce. They sold their head to corporations or the government to built the kind of things we knew perfectly well how to built, that we sometimes discussed as a intellectual game, never intending to make them a reality. Like surveillance infrastructure. Like software to analyze camera images in realtime for movement patterns, faces, license plates. Like data mining to combine vast amounts of information into graphs of relations and behavior. Like interception systems to record and analyze every single phone call, e-mail, click in the web. Means to track every single move of people and things.
Thinking about what can be done with the results of one’s work is one thing. Refusing to do the job because it could be to the worse of mankind is something completely different. Especially when there is no other good option to earn a living in a mentally stimulating way around. Most projects by itself were justifiable, of course. It was “not that bad” or “no real risk”. Often the excuse was “it is not technical feasible today anyway, it’s too much data to store or make sense from”. Ten years later it is feasible. For sure.
While it certainly would be better when the surveillance industry would die from lack of talent, the more realistic approach is to keep talking to those of us who sold their head. We need to generate a culture that might be compared with the sale of indulgences in the last dark ages: you may be working on the wrong side of the barricade but we would be willing to trade you private moral absolution in exchange for knowledge. Tell us what is happening there, what the capabilities are, what the plans are, which gross scandals have been hidden. To be honest, there is very little what we know about the capabilities of todays dark-side interception systems after the meanwhile slightly antiquated Echelon system had been discovered. All the new stuff that monitors the internet, the current and future use of database profiling, automated CCTV analysis, behavior pattern discovery and so on is only known in very few cases and vague outlines.
We also need to know how the intelligence agencies work today. It is of highest priority to learn how the “we rather use backdoors than waste time cracking your keys”-methods work in practice on a large scale and what backdoors have been intentionally built into or left inside our systems. Building clean systems will be rather difficult, given the multitude of options to produce a backdoor – ranging from operating system and application software to hardware and CPUs that are to complex to fully audit. Open Source does only help in theory, who has the time to really audit all the source anyway…
Of course, the risk of publishing this kind of knowledge is high, especially for those on the dark side. So we need to build structures that can lessen the risk. We need anonymous submission systems for documents, methods to clean out eventual document fingerprinting (both on paper and electronic). And, of course, we need to develop means to identify the inevitable disinformation that will also be fed through these channels to confuse us.
Building technology to preserve the options for change
We are facing a unprecedented onslaught of surveillance technology. The debate whether this may or may not reduce crime or terrorism is not relevant anymore. The de-facto impact on society can already be felt with the content mafia (aka. RIAA) demanding access to all data to preserve their dead business model. We will need to build technology to preserve the freedom of speech, the freedom of thought, the freedom of communication, there is no other long-term solution. Political barriers to total surveillance have a very limited half-life period.
The universal acceptance of electronic communication systems has been a tremendous help for political movements. It has become a bit more difficult and costly to maintain secrets for those in power. Unfortunately, the same problem applies to everybody else. So one thing that we can do to help societies progress along is to provide tools, knowledge and training for secure communications to every political and social movement that shares at least some of our ideals. We should not be too narrow here in choosing our friends, everyone who opposes centralistic power structures and is not geared towards totalitarism should be welcome. Maintaining the political breathing spaces becomes more important than what this space is used for.
Anonymity will become the most precious thing. Encrypting communications is nice and necessary but helps little as long as the communication partners are known. Traffic analysis is the most valuable intelligence tool around. Only by automatically looking at communications and movement patterns, the interesting individuals can be filtered out, those who justify the cost of detailed surveillance. Widespread implementation of anonymity technologies becomes seriously urgent, given the data retention laws that have been passed in the EU. We need opportunistic anonymity the same way we needed opportunistic encryption. Currently, every anonymization technology that has been deployed is instantly overwhelmed with file sharing content. We need solutions for that, preferably with systems that can stand the load, as anonymity loves company and more traffic means less probability of de-anonymization by all kinds of attack.
Closed user groups have already gained momentum in communities that have a heightened awareness and demand for privacy. The darker parts of the hacker community and a lot of the warez trading circles have gone “black” already. Others will follow. The technology to build real-world working closed user groups is not yet there. We have only improvised setups that work under very specific circumstances. Generic, easy to use technology to create fully encrypted closed user groups for all kinds of content with comfortable degrees of anonymity is desperately needed.
Decentralized infrastructure is the needed. The peer-to-peer networks are a good example to see what works and what not. As long as there are centralized elements they can be taken down under one pretext or another. Only true peer-to-peer systems that need as little centralized elements as possible can survive. Interestingly, tactical military networks have the same requirements. We need to borrow from them, the same way they borrow from commercial and open source technology.
Design stuff with surveillance abuse in mind is the next logical step. A lot of us are involved into designing and implementing systems that can be abused for surveillance purposes. Be it webshop systems, databases, RFID systems, communication systems, or ordinary Blog servers, we need to design things as safe as possible against later abuse of collected data or interception. Often there is considerable freedom to design within the limits of our day jobs. We need to use this freedom to build systems in a way that they collect as little data as possible, use encryption and provide anonymity as much as possible. We need to create a culture around that. A system design needs to be viewed by our peers only as “good” if it adheres to these criteria. Of course, it may be hard to sacrifice the personal power that comes with access to juicy data. But keep in mind, you will not have this job forever and whoever takes over the system is most likely not as privacy-minded as you are. Limiting the amount of data gathered on people doing everyday transactions and communication is an absolute must if you are a serious hacker. There are many good things that can be done with RFID. For instance making recycling of goods easier and more effective by storing the material composition and hints about the manufacturing process in tags attached to electronic gadgets. But to be able to harness the good potential of technologies like this, the system needs to limit or prevent the downside as much as possible, by design, not as an afterthought.
Do not compromise your friends with stupidity or ignorance will be even more essential. We are all used to the minor fuckups of encrypted mail being forwarded unencrypted, being careless about other peoples data traces or bragging with knowledge obtained in confidence. This is no longer possible. We are facing an enemy that is euphemistically called “Global Observer” in research papers. This is meant literally. You can no longer rely on information or communication being “overlooked” or “hidden in the noise”. Everything is on file. Forever. And it can and will be used against you. And your “innocent” slip-up five years back might compromise someone you like.
Keep silent and enjoy or publish immediately may become the new mantra for security researchers. Submitting security problems to the manufacturers provides the intelligence agencies with a long period in which they can and will use the problem to attack systems and implant backdoors. It is well known that backdoors are the way around encryption and that all big manufacturers have an agreement with the respective intelligence agencies of their countries to hand over valuable “0 day” exploit data as soon as they get them. During the months or even years it takes them to issue a fix, the agencies can use the 0 day and do not risk exposure. If an intrusion gets detected by accident, no one will suspect foul play, as the problem will be fixed later by the manufacturer. So if you discover problems, publish at least enough information to enable people to detect an intrusion before submitting to the manufacturer.
Most important: have fun! The eavesdropping people must be laughed about as their job is silly, boring, and ethically the worst thing to earn money with, sort of blackmail and robbing grandmas on the street. We need to develop a “lets have fun confusing their systems”-culture that plays with the inherent imperfections, loopholes, systematic problems, and interpretation errors that are inevitable with large scale surveillance. Artists are the right company for this kind of approach. We need a subculture of “In your face, peeping tom”. Exposing surveillance in the most humiliating and degrading manner, giving people something to laugh about must be the goal. Also, this prevents us from becoming frustrated and tired. If there is no fun in beating the system, we will get tired of it and they will win. So let’s be flexible, creative and funny, not angry, ideologic and stiff-necked.