With Zuckerberg testifying to the US Congress over Facebook’s data privacy and the implementation of GDPR fast approaching, the debate around data ownership has suddenly burst into the public psyche. Collecting user data to serve targeted advertising in a free platform is one thing, harvesting the social graphs of people interacting with apps and using it to sway an election is somewhat worse.
Suffice to say that neither of the above compare to the indiscriminate collection of ordinary civilians’ data on behalf of governments every day.
In 2013, Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the systematic US spy program he helped to architect. Perhaps the largest revelation to come out of the trove of documents he released were the details of PRISM, an NSA program that collects internet communications data from US telecommunications companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook and Apple. The data collected included audio and video chat logs, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs of anyone using the services of 9 leading US internet companies. PRISM benefited from changes to FISA that allowed warrantless domestic surveillance of any target without the need for probable cause. Bill Binney, former US intelligence official, explains how, for instances where corporate control wasn’t achievable, the NSA enticed third party countries to clandestinely tap internet communication lines on the internet backbone via the RAMPART-A program.What this means is that the NSA was able to assemble near complete dossiers of all web activity carried out by anyone using the internet.
But this is just in the US right?, policies like this wouldn’t be implemented in Europe.
GCHQ, the UK’s intelligence agency allegedly collects considerably more metadata than the NSA. Under Tempora, GCHQ can intercept all internet communications from submarine fibre optic cables and store the information for 30 days at the Bude facility in Cornwall. This includes complete web histories, the contents of all emails and facebook entires and given that more than 25% of all internet communications flow through these cables, the implications are astronomical. Elsewhere, JTRIG, a unit of GCHQ have intercepted private facebook pictures, changed the results of online polls and spoofed websites in real time. A lot of these techniques have been made possible by the 2016 Investigatory Powers Act which Snowden describes as the most “extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy”.
But despite all this, the age old reprise; “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” often rings out in debates over privacy.
Indeed, the idea is so pervasive that politicians often lean on the phrase to justify ever more draconian methods of surveillance. Yes, they draw upon the selfsame rhetoric of Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Nazi regime.
In drafting legislation for the the Investigatory Powers Act, May said that such extremes were necessary to ensure “no area of cyberspace becomes a haven for those who seek to harm us, to plot, poison minds and peddle hatred under the radar”.
When levelled against the fear of terrorism and death, its easy to see how people passively accept ever greater levels of surveillance. Indeed, Naomi Klein writes extensively in Shock Doctrine how the fear of external threats can be used as a smokescreen to implement ever more invasive policy. But indiscriminate mass surveillance should never be blindly accepted, privacy should and always will be a social norm, despite what Mark Zuckerberg said in 2010. Although I’m sure he may have a different answer now.
So you just read emails and look at cat memes online, why would you care about privacy?
In the same way we’re able to close our living room curtains and be alone and unmonitored, we should be able to explore our identities online un-impinged. Its a well rehearsed idea that nowadays we’re more honest to our web browsers than we are to each other but what happens when you become cognisant that everything you do online is intercepted and catalogued? As with CCTV, when we know we’re being watched, we alter our behaviour in line with whats expected.
As soon as this happens online, the liberating quality provided by the anonymity of the internet is lost. Your thinking aligns with the status quo and we lose the boundless ability of the internet to search and develop our identities. No progress can be made when everyone thinks the same way. Difference of opinion fuels innovation.
This draws obvious comparisons with Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison blueprint for enforcing control from within. The basic setup is as follows; there is a central guard tower surrounded by cells. In the cells are prisoners. The tower shines bright light so that the watchman can see each inmate silhouetted in their cell but the prisoners cannot see the watchman. The prisoners must assume they could be observed at any point and therefore act accordingly. In literature, the common comparison is Orwell’s 1984 where omnipresent government surveillance enforces control and distorts reality. With revelations about surveillance states, the relevance of these metaphors are plain to see.
In reality, theres actually a lot more at stake here.
With the Panopticon certain individuals are watched, in 1984 everyone is watched. On the modern internet, every person, irrespective of the threat they pose, is not only watched but their information is stored and archived for analysis.
Kafka’s The Trial, in which a bureaucracy uses citizens information to make decisions about them, but denies them the ability to participate in how their information is used, therefore seems a more apt comparison. The issue here is that corporations, more so, states have been allowed to comb our data and make decisions that affect us without our consent.
Maybe, as a member of a western democracy, you don’t think this matters. But what if you’re a member of a minority group in an oppressive regime? What if you’re arrested because a computer algorithm cant separate humour from intent to harm?
On the other hand, maybe you trust the intentions of your government, but how much faith do you have in them to keep your data private? The recent hack of the SEC shows that even government systems aren’t safe from attackers. When a business database is breached, maybe your credit card details become public, when a government database that has aggregated millions of data points on every aspect of your online life is hacked, you’ve lost all control of your ability to selectively reveal yourself to the world. Just as Lyndon Johnson sought to control physical clouds, he who controls the modern cloud, will rule the world.
Perhaps you think that even this doesn’t matter, if it allows the government to protect us from those that intend to cause harm then its worth the loss of privacy. The trouble with indiscriminate surveillance is that with so much data you see everything but paradoxically, still know nothing.
Intelligence is the strategic collection of pertinent facts, bulk data collection cannot therefore be intelligent. As Bill Binney puts it “bulk data kills people” because technicians are so overwhelmed that they cant isolate whats useful. Data collection as it is can only focus on retribution rather than reduction.
Granted, GDPR is a big step forward for individual consent but will it stop corporations handing over your data to the government? Depending on how cynical you are, you might think that GDPR is just a tool to clean up and create more reliable deterministic data anyway. The nothing to hide, nothing to fear mentality renders us passive supplicants in the removal of our civil liberties. We should be thinking about how we relate to one another and to our Governments and how much power we want to have in that relationship.