Saturday, January 25, 2014

Surveillance, politeness, and privacy

Is the NSA killing us or protecting us?

Surveillance as a general social principle. We are always watching each other, and it is the primordial way of being in society. In the old days, gossip was the principal method of leveraging surveillance into social power and enforcement. Now we happily surveil each other by facebook, twitter, google earth, and leave comments. The issue in our new surveillance environment is not the existence of surveillance per se, but the asymmetry and invasiveness of surveillance. Do we know who is watching, what they are watching, and when they are watching? Are they harming us? Can we turn it off?

Traditionally, social surveillance is always mutual. You see me at the same time I see you- having a meal together, talking, hunting. The power of this mutual observation and interaction is immense, policing our behavior so as to enforce "normal" standards, alert for any deviation, political or moral lapse, for novel signals of fashion, disease, innovation, threat, etc. Religion is its purest expression- including extensive, in-depth thought policing.

Some people stand up well to all this observation, some don't. The pervasive social pressure has enormous effects on our mental health, causing depression, suicide, peer pressure, status anxiety, etc.. one of the great, if not the greatest, motive forces of politics and social life in general. One point of etiquette is to relieve people of this anxiety, leaving their private affairs politely out of the conversation, even as the observation goes silently on. The essence of privacy is not that we are not observed, but that we are not held to account or bullied about it beyond endurance.

The totalitarian societies were a sort of reversion back to the small town mode of intense surveillance, with a total invasion of privacy and violation of civilized etiquette in the bargain, using all this information against people at their most vulnerable points. But in large societies we have typically adapted to a much looser model of toleration & privacy, where due to the sheer numbers and sheer density, more observation and more diversity must be accommodated than humans are typically comfortable with. So we keep a small community of close relationships and mutual close surveillance, amid a large cloud of anonymous and little-noticed passers-by.

Big data has changed all this, bringing the intimacy of small town surveillance, where the local store clerk, for instance, knew what everyone bought, to the global stage. Some embrace the facebook-i-zation of personal surveillance. The question is mostly whether we can turn off portions of this surveillance that we do not like, or which we collectively deem asymmetrically unfair and invasive,m or corrupt and incompetent. For instance, our credit cards provide entree to all our purchases to faceless corporations who diligently mine them for scraps of sales leads, and sell them off to their "partners". It is a seamy, disreputable business, and not at all voluntary.

If they had reasons of state, and a secret court looking over their shoulders, I would be far more amenable. But they don't. Credit cards are not an optional institution in today's world, so this surveillance is essentially involuntary, and extremely asymmetric. Its typical results, however, are modestly annoying, rather than invasive or life-threatening, so the cost has to date been borne without too much complaint. And the monitoring of all our web comings and goings.. well, it is not far from George Orwell's Telescreens of 1984, which monitor everyone with an unblinking eye.

What to do? The NSA portion of this is relatively inconsequential, really. The average person's degree of invasion from their practices is essentially nil, though surely mistakes have happened and cause great individual harm. The government's no-fly list is an example of a relatively more open program plagued with error and invasiveness.

But the flood of other personal data rushing into corporate and other unknown hands is far more serious. The Target incident where tens of millions of accounts were stolen, the ongoing traffic in social security numbers, identity theft, false tax claims, endless spam, and targeted come-ons, etc.. all point to a "system" in crisis. We have let our virtual selves contain ever more important data without vetting anything, or any serious legal structure. Sure, the companies in question have a stake in customer faith and thus their own prudence & etiquette. But their transparency is nonexistent and failures clearly frequent. We have no idea, and even they have little idea, what has been stolen or bartered away into the nether worlds of cybercrime.

Even biometrics hold out little hope. A fingerprint or iris scan can be forged, as can any other piece of data. We are trapped in a data whirlwind, where it is only ourselves, in person and with competent memories, that can completely attest to identity. So we are back to the personal, one-to-one world of rich and personal information that we began with.

I don't think it is enough to hark back to the privacy provisions of the constitution and take an absolutist position that divides harsh restrictions on government surveillance from a wild-west atmosphere in the private realm, papered over with the concept of so-called "voluntary" participation. We need new law in this new realm, to enforce competence of information collection and safe-guarding on all entities that collect big data, (with business-ending penalties for flagrant breaches), and to match its social effects and invasiveness with public oversight.

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