PRISM – A Bug On Every Person, A Camera In All Places

“There’s a reason we separate military and the police: one fights the enemy of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
Adama in “Battlestar Galactica”

A slightly off-topic posting.

I love analogies. They are a useful ‘creativity technique’ and can help you to get new ideas — or to make sense of a situation (always provided, the relevant aspects of the analogy hold true).

Looking at the discussion about PRISM, and other massively invasive online surveillance programs, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we use the physical world as an analogy in this case. After all, the things we do online (shopping, talking with friends) are but an extension of things we do in our daily lives. So far, it was much easier to do online, now we find out it’s also much more … oppressing.

For example:

  • Shopping
    • In the physical world, you leave your house and walk to the shop. In the shop, you browse around, perhaps have a closer look at a few of the items, put some into your shopping basket, pay, put the things into a bag and walk home. People might see you, but it is rare that people you know observe you shopping — you would probably notice it and might even change your behavior. In the store, surveillance cameras might be used to try to catch thieves, but the images are (hopefully) only stored locally and deleted after a while. Usually, what happens in the store stays in the store.
    • If you shop online, the moment you enter the URL of, e.g., Amazon, in your browser and press return, your visit to the store is logged. Everything you look at on Amazon, deliberately or ‘by accident’ is logged. And not (only) by Amazon, which might use the information for personalized advertisement, but by the government. They know what was looked at in a store, and what was bought, and with access to your provider data, they know who you are and what you did.
  • Talking to friends
    • In the physical world, when you met friends, you might met in a public place (e.g., a café) and talk. Some people might overhear you, which might influence the topics you talk about. You might even deliberately avoid topics we originally talk about if some people are close. If you want to talk in private, you can do it behind closed doors, or during a walk where no-one else is near. There are intimate matters, e.g., like relationships, job stress, health, that require trust and confidentiality to talk about and are not for public ears.
    • If you have the same private conversations online, e.g., via eMails or in social media networks with activated privacy settings, you might expect that no-one else can read them. After all, they are private conversations only with the involved individuals. While it might be possible for some to monitor a network and copy the exchanged messages (eMails are essentially like postcards), few people have the interest and the technical skills. But at the same time, everything you say online, be it via typing or via Skype or the like, is logged by the government.

These are only two everyday examples, there are many more. In essence, what programs like PRISM and the like do is to give every person who is online a little man in grey, who works for the government and diligently writes down everything we do, everything we say, online. Our shopping behavior, our conversations with our friends, with our partners, with our confidants. And this little man in grey does it without any emotion and passion — it just writes down what you do. In other words, we live in an (online) world where there is a bug on every person, a camera in all places. As a social scientist, my mouth waters at the behavior data that is captured this way, but as a citizen I can’t help but feel choked.

While I think that our concerns with social media fuck-ups are way overblown, there is something like private-life public and that just because it was visible to everyone does not mean it was intended for everyone (especially not in their professional function or role), I still feel the influence of this surveillance. I do not want a world where everything I do and say online is logged. Where I feel like I must manage my impression every second I am using a computer. Where I feel that I must stifle my natural curiosity, where I must watch my conversations and become an expert in encryption and hiding data traces to talk online (as if anyone could compete with a billion dollar equipment).

And I should not have to. After all, I am not a terrorist, we live in a democracy (here), where it is the public duty of each citizen to engage in politics, even if only to cast a vote.

I highly doubt that politicians will do anything. Many seem more interested in a democracy that produces citizens who simply nod at each election and say ‘good job’, instead of a citizenship that thinks critically and demands high quality work. And at the moment they seem … out of their depth, like they do not see what they are building (or allowing to be build) online. And that it is not a separate world but an extension of our physical world, that exerts a strong influence on the physical world, that can be used to control and damage our daily lives. Nor do I think that laws will achieve anything — after all, you can easily bypass laws due to the ‘immediate threats’ of terrorism or security or whatever the current scare is. There is always the option of saying “this does not apply here, due to …” or simply do it in secret. And all the while structures are build that just beg to be used by someone who cannot deal with power (few can, and all you need is one fuck-up).

We need something on the citizens side, e.g., open source social networks that routinely use extremely strong encryption, and the operating systems that come with strong firewalls and with mail programs that use encryption by default (and make that part open source).

And we need to trust in people — ‘ordinary citizens’, not government agencies — and surely not technology. I think the only thing that will work in the long term is to make it easy for whitleblowers to expose surveillance, whether it is by intelligence ‘services’ or by companies who have to cooperate with them and cannot protect the data of their customers. In the end, it’s people with integrity who protect us, not the technology we use.

So, for the moment I have to live with that tightening feeling in my chest of every move being watched, worse than it ever was in the most oppressive and state controlled country. The only difference is that the data is (apparently) not yet used to harm citizens.

But it’s only a simple step when the tightening in the chest becomes the nose around the neck.



It just occurred to me that the following quote would have fitted very well for this posting. Instead of asking whether citizens are now seen as the enemy (or, whether there is even a distinction between ‘to protect’ vs. ‘to fight’ anymore), the following quote points to the vast amounts of power you have when you are able to see what other people think — and after all, what is the online world but externalized thoughts.

“President Clark isn’t the real problem, he’s trivial. One way or another he’ll be gone in a few years, but the telepaths he put in power, the Psi Corps, those will be with us forever. That’s the real danger. If information is power, then telepaths represent the greatest threat to freedom we’ve ever seen. We have to deal with that, or face the very real possibility of our own extinction.”
Wade and Edgars in Babylon 5: “The Face of the Enemy”

Here it’s the same problem — the issue is not President Obama or Chancellor Merkel (in Germany) — it’s the people who are in power in the future, and who are in power now just because they have access to that information. As a politician, I would worry about being extorted by my own intelligence service.