On Fear of Surveillance Technology

by Emrys Westacott

Surveillance of people by governments and other institutions is an ancient practice. According to the legend, the first Christmas occurred in Bethlehem because of a census ordered by the emperor Augustus. One of the first acts of William the Conqueror after becoming king of England was to commission the Doomsday Book–an exact accounting of people and property throughout the realm.
ImagesKnowing who people are, where they live, what they own, what they think, and whom they associate with has long been recognized as key to holding and exercising power. Not surprisingly, therefore, chief surveillance officers like Cardinal Richelieu and J. Edgar Hoover have been among the most powerful men of their time.

It is a commonplace that the technological revolution based on the digital computer has made possible a revolution in surveillance. This process is well underway and can be expected to continue into the foreseeable future. Innovations that constitute this revolution include:

  • cameras monitoring highways, airports, banks, shops, malls, streets and other public placestelephone records of every call made, often including a record of the actual conversation
  • monitoring and recording of e-mail, text messages, and other internet activity; of all financial transactions, particularly banking, credit card purchases, and loans; and of individual shopping habits from large item mail order purchases to the particular brands of tinned fruit one prefers at the supermarket
  • digitization (which allows for more detail plus enhanced accessibility) of hence of medical records, academic records, and other data bases of personal information, including fingerprints and other unique identifiers, used by police, immigration services, and other government agencies concerned with law enforcement or security
  • tracking devices attached to people or vehicles
  • implants that monitor such things as a person's pulse or insulin levels and send alerts if these change dramatically

The list could be extended almost indefinitely. One notable consequence of all this monitoring is that the police and other agencies with access to this information can track our movements much more easily than in the past. Every time we send a text message or swipe a credit card, they fix our location.

The revolution in surveillance technology gives rise to at least three different kinds of fear.

1. The Frankenstein complex

This is the fear that the machines we create will eventually come to dominate us. The motif is a familiar one in literature and film running from Mary Shelley's famous novel to the greatly overrated Matrix trilogy. In fictional settings like The Matrix or Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 the machines become hostile, putting their own interests above the human interests they were intended to serve. This failure of solidarity with us is usually premised on their incapacity to have feelings. This puts them on a different moral plane, although, rather surprisingly, their lack of feeling is usually accompanied by an intense will to power. In real life, however, our fear of machines doesn't run that deep. The problem with machines is not that they're out to get us but that they will sometimes be utterly unresponsive to our particular circumstances and needs.

I once heard a wonderful three-minute play on the radio–which unfortunately I have not been able to trace–about a man in a phone booth (remember them?). He deposits his coin, tries to make a call, fails to get through, but doesn't get his coin back. Exasperated, he slams down the receiver and thumps the machine. Immediately, the phone booth locks itself and a calm, silky, female voice, with typical telephone intonation tells him that an act of vandalism has been registered, and that since he is the sole occupant of the booth he stands accused of the crime. He's told to plead either guilty by pressing 1 or not guilty by pressing 2. The rest of the play consists of his trial, held in the phone booth, conducted entirely by machine. The central running joke throughout the sketch has to do with the man's inability to escape from the circuit of machine prompts and responses in order to explain himself to a fellow human being. It's a bitter joke that we all get because we've all been there, although never for such high stakes. The man is eventually found guilty. He's allowed to appeal, but his appeal is turned down, and he's promptly executed by the release of poison gas into the booth.

As I said, we've all been there. A couple of years ago the transponder on my car failed to work correctly at a toll booth. Instead of the toll being automatically deducted form my account, I received a violation notice telling me I had to pay a 50¢ toll plus a $25 administration fee. I followed the instructions on how to appeal against this, and received a second violation notice. I tried phoning EZ Pass and was told to talk to Fast Lane, with whom I originally set up the account. You can guess what they told me–my dispute was with EZ Pass: I needed to talk to them. Meanwhile, I received a more urgent and threatening notice from EZ Pass. I now had a late payment fee on top of the administration charge, taking the amount owed to over $100. When I tried to phone I could never get through to anyone. I wrote, paying off the 50¢ toll and explaining why I shouldn't have to pay any more than that. It made no difference. I received further violation notices, the last one telling me that I was liable to arrest. I'm pretty sure that none of these notices were ever touched by human hand.

Our anxiety about finding ourselves in this sort of situation is very reasonable. We are increasingly processed by machines, and we know why. Machines are cheaper and, in some cases, more reliable (they never forget to carry the one, nor do they have to stay home with their sick kids). They are also fairer. Highway police issuing speeding tickets, being human, are unlikely to be completely consistent and impartial. Their decisions may be affected by the race, sex, class, age, appearance, and manner of the people they pull over. Machines that clock speeds, identify license plates, and issue tickets accordingly will be unaffected by such things. Given that consistency and impartiality are important moral values–core ingredients of fairness–this is something we should applaud. The problem with machines, however, is that they can only be consistent in a rather crude way. They can't temper the ideal of consistency with an understanding of a person's particular situation. What's so frustrating about going through all those phone menus, pressing 1 for yes, 2 for no, 3 for English, and 4 to hear the menu again, is that often what we desperately want is another human being to whom we can explain our peculiar circumstances.

In short, what machines lack is what “phronesis” or practical wisdom, one of the central notion in Aristotle's ethics. It includes the ability to recognize subtle differences and to respond intelligently to novel situations. Presumably, as they become more sophisticated, machines will be better able to emulate this sort of intelligence. But for the time being we're still fairly suspicious of them. The moral of many a classic episode of Star Trek is that when faced with an extraordinary dilemma the right decision turns out to be one that no machine would ever have made.

2. Fear of losing one's privacy

Much of the current concern about the way state and commercial organizations are monitoring individuals and amassing information about them focuses on the threat to personal privacy. Some sort of right to privacy is recognized in law (e.g. by the Fourth Amendment to the US constitution and by the UN declaration on human rights). But the revolution in surveillance technology seems to be outflanking some of these legal protections. There is an ongoing struggle between those who desire ever more extensive surveillance and those who resist this trend. The Patriot Act passed in the US in 2001 was clearly a victory for the party of the first part. It included, for instance, a provision allowing government agencies to scrutinize the library records of individuals they had no reason to suspect of wrongdoing. On the other hand, the ruling by the US Supreme in June 2014 that police may not look at what is on the cell phone of an arrested person without first obtaining a search warrant was enthusiastically applauded by champions of civil liberties.

The concepts of ‘privacy' and ‘reasonableness' are culturally relative, and how we understand them inevitably changes as we become used to new technologies. Is aerial surveillance of one's house and garden invasive? A hundred years ago most people would have said so, but nowadays this is a routine part of police activity; and as it becomes normal so we start to view it as reasonable. There are now x-ray cameras used by border police to discover smuggled goods, weapons, drugs, and illegal immigrants inside vehicles. Similar cameras could be used by police while cruising around neighborhoods to peer inside houses, even though they have no search warrants. This seem invasive to us today, but may soon be as commonplace as aerial photography.

Why do people fear the loss of privacy. One reason is that my knowing that someone, somewhere may be observing me, or may have information about me that I would prefer to be secret, can interfere with my happiness. To be sure, the fact that someone observes me or knows something about me does not necessarily violate my right to privacy. Indeed some would say that my right to privacy is only violated if that person actually does something with their knowledge. But this doesn't alter the fact that for some people not being observed and not having others know their secrets is necessary for peace of mind. This is certainly the premise of many a “who dunnit” in which the murderer kills in order to allay anxieties over what other people may know. Underlying such anxieties, though, is a more obvious and rational reason for fearing the invasion of our privacy: we are afraid that the information gathered might be used to hurt us in some way.

Much depends, of course, on who is observing me or has information about me. The technology revolution makes it possible for us all to know more about each other, and not just through internet searches. X-ray cameras and eavesdropping devices are now on the market–ideal Christmas presents for some, no doubt. An especially intriguing—and potentially culture-transforming—invention is a palm-sized lie detector that works by registering change in a person's speech patterns. How this might eventually affect such time-honoured interactions as job interviews, first dates, and political press conferences is anybody's guess.

But most people do not seem to worry too much about a loss of privacy due to everyone being able to know more about everyone else. The fact that it is now easier than ever before for any of us to know stuff about other people is not what troubles us. That genie isn't going back in the bottle, and we are probably just going to have to get used to being more exposed to the gaze of others, finding comfort in the thought that the same technology is available to us as well. People are less likely to abuse the power it gives them if they know that they, too, are vulnerable. Thus the deeper fear for many has to do with situations where surveillance and access to information is combined with an asymmetrical power structure. Which leads us to.…..

3. Fear of political domination

If fear of domination by our creations calls to mind Frankenstein, fear of political domination calls to mind Nineteen Eighty Four. Orwell's novel contains many prescient insights into contemporary culture, but the central idea of the work is that a political ruling class could succeed in entrenching themselves in power so completely that there is no possibility of any further political change. And the principal means by which they sustain themselves in power is ubiquitous and relentless surveillance–and not just of a few potential troublemakers, but of everyone. For as Glenn Greenwald argues, the purpose isn't simply to keep an eye on dissidents; being under surveillance breeds conformity.[1]

Ubiquitous and relentless surveillance is evidently considered desirable by many of those in power. Edward Snowdon's revelations about the mass surveillance being practiced by America's National Security Agency (NSA) made this crystal clear. 6a00d8341c562c53ef01bb07c7e0d0970d-320wiUS District judge Richard Leon, who was appointed by George W. Bush, in ruling that the NSA's wholesale gathering of phone data was probably unconstitutional, described the NSA's activities as “almost Orwellian,” and the only questionable part of this ruling was the word “almost.” The technological revolution has greatly increased the power of our political rulers by enabling them to monitor more completely and analyse more thoroughly what we do, where we go, who we meet, and what we say. The access the NSA enjoys to the data collected by tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Verizon, Apple, Microsoft, and Yahoo has recently been shown to be an integral part of this work. The revolution continiues apace and is probably unstoppable. So the political question becomes: how can we prevent those in power from misusing the new technology to serve their own interests?

One strategy is to use existing laws and whatever rights to privacy are recognized by the courts to block access by government and commercial interests to protected information. This approach has been used effectively by organizations like the ACLU. A second, complimentary approach is to insist on oversight—that is, insist that those conducting surveillance are themselves continually monitored to ensure that information collected is accurate, that the acquisition process is legitimate, that access to the information is limited to those entitled to it, and that it is not used for illegitimate or inappropriate purposes (such as blackmail, insider trading, discrimination in employment, or antidemocratic practices).

But a familiar political problem immediately raises its head: who oversees the overseers? Human oversight of surveillance technology is certainly desirable, but in itself it will provide small comfort if conducted by the likes of J. Edgar Hoover. To this conundrum there seems to be only one good answer: society itself must be the overseer, providing oversight through elected representatives, the courts, the media, and organizations like the ACLU.

Technology is taking us ever further in the direction of a transparent universe, as David Brin predicted in his 1998 work The Transparent Society. The most serious danger that this involves is not oppression by machines or loss of privacy–the first two fears mentioned above–but that it will enable those in power to entrench and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us and our democratic ideals. It is much easier for them to do this, though, when the transparency is unidirectional, when they know what we're up to but not vice-versa. The real danger isn't transparency but asymmetry. What we should fear is not so much the technology as those who who are willing to misuse it.

Whistleblowers like Edward Snowdon thus perform an inestimable public service when they bring into the light what government agencies are up to without our knowledge. Bills like the Patriot Act deliberately make the conduct of government more opaque. Judges are required to rubber stamp court orders; homes can be searched without their occupiers ever being notified; people are forbidden to disclose the fact that they were ever asked for information by the FBI. When unnecessary opacity can't be combatted, or even exposed, by regular political means, whistleblowing is entirely justified. For greater political transparency is the best way–perhaps the only way–to ensure that the revolution in surveillance technology will not lead us toward a more authoritarian society.

[1] See Glenn Greenwald, “How America's Surveillance State Breeds Conformity and Fear,” AlterNet, July 2012.