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Thinking about the total surveillance future

On Saturday January 6th of what is still next year – Happy New Year when it comes everyone! – I will be giving the first of Christian Michel’s talks in his 6/20 Series of the year 2007. My talk will be entitled “Getting to grips with the Total Surveillance State and the Total Surveillance Society”. And for reasons which will become all too clear if you read the rest of this posting, I would appreciate some help. Last week I sent Christian the rather long and discursive ramble below concerning my thinking on this subject, which he had to shorten to turn it into a useful email announcement. What follows is a very slightly amended and extended version of that original ramble. As I say, all pertinent answers to and comments on the many questions I am now asking myself would be greatly appreciated… by the way, I already know that I need to be paying a lot of attention to this guy.

Some talks are given because the speaker has something important to say, and is very confident about what that something is, and that it is important. The first talk I gave to the 6/20 Club (on January 6th 2006) was of this sort. Oh, it had blurry edges, as all talks will, but the central thesis was something I was really pretty sure about and still am, namely that A-bombs and H-bombs had turned major war from something that Great Powers had to prepare for at all cost, into something they had to avoid at all cost. Hence globalisation. A nice and clear, nice and understandable thesis. Not necessarily right, but if wrong, then wrong in a nice clear way.

But then there are the talks such as the one I will be giving on January 6th 2007, which I am giving not because I know what to say about the Total Surveillance State and the Total Surveillance Society, but because I do not, but want to find out. About the only thing I am sure of concerning this topic is that it is an important topic, and worthy of all our best efforts to make sense of it. And if I agree to talk about this topic, I will have to think about it, no matter how much of an effort that may be.

Here are some of the questions, points, thoughts now rattling through my head on this topic:

  • Total Surveillance is definitely on its way. Saying that the technology won’t work is delusional. Sure, governments waste millions on technology, but it eventually works, if only because eventually you can buy the necessary kit in the High Street. On the other hand, so long as progress persists, new kit will means new blunders, neand w surprises (often nasty) about what it can be used for.
  • The USSR tried totally to control economic outcomes. Can its abject failure illuminate what I now sense will be a similar failure to control safety outcomes and crime outcomes? Crime statistics certainly have a USSR steel production feel to them.
  • Is total surveillance such a bad thing? Maybe not, if the only laws and behaviour enforcements are modest in scope, and very reasonable. But total surveillance enforcing crazily voluminous and tyrannically intrusive laws is very bad news.
  • In general, what happens to the world when everyone else can easily learn anything in particular about us that they want to learn? What social institutions falter? (Marriage? Insurance?) Is privacy a human right or a mere historical phase? A phase which now may be passing?
  • Is celebrity obsession a pre-echo of a world in which all are potential celebrities, due to the ubiquity of completely invisible and unblockable cameras and microphones?

My main conclusion so far is that Total Surveillance will mean very different things depending on what else happens along with it. You cannot analyse the phenomenon in isolation.

For instance, just who will be allowed to browse through all those sound and vision files. Will it be everyone? Or only a self-appointed elite? Both arrangements have major hazards attached to them.

Since writing the above stuff to Christian, I have begun to fixate on another question, which is this: What does an individual have to gain by being totally surveilled? Fewer aggressive attacks against him is an obvious answer. Insurance premiums might be another. (If you live a totally safe and careful life, you might gain greatly if your insurance company can see this for themselves.) But I suspect that there are many other answers. (Simple showing off springs to mind.) Which is why I think that a great deal of, if perhaps not total, surveillance is probably here to stay.

As already stated above, I wish all of Samizdata’s readers a Happy New Year, but fear that for many of them, the above thoughts will have done little to contribute to such happiness.

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24 comments to Thinking about the total surveillance future

  • guy herbert

    Brian,

    I might have to write a very long reply. But by way of start:

    What does an individual have to gain by being totally surveilled? Fewer aggressive attacks against him is an obvious answer. Insurance premiums might be another. (If you live a totally safe and careful life, you might gain greatly if your insurance company can see this for themselves.)

    No; not either of those. The nature of aggressive attacks is likely to change, perhaps, and maybe, just maybe, there’ll be more chance of some violent criminals being caught, but there’s no reason to suppose that they’ll decrease.

    The reason is that total surveillance in real time is impossible. The information may be recordable, but it can’t be interpreted and relevant decisions taken based on it in order for significant intervention to forestall attacks. The only hope it offers is tracing afterwards. Which may be ineffective, and is dependent on allocation of resources to the tracing. My guess is that (1) deterrent effects are limited, and will just lead to countermeasures where there is premeditation, and (2) other uses of tracking are likely to have a higher call on resources than dealing with uncelebrated unpolitical cases. We see these trends in CCTV use already.

    As for insurance, maybe Philip can answer better, but there is an assymetry in the way insurers handle risk: they don’t quite make a book in the way one might expect them to, and they are much more highly risk averse in any given situation than most individuals are capable of being, because minimisation of risk is maximisation of profit. If it doesn’t make insurance impossible, then such surveillance is most likely to make it much more expensive, not least because tracing will be used to exclude claims on the basis of violations of policy conditions.

    Some individuals will undoubtably gain psychologically, because they are comforted by being “watched over”. Others will find it distressing. It is far from clear what the proportions of those would be in the population.

  • guy herbert

    I recommend, as further food for thought, that you read John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider.

  • Julian Taylor

    I agree with Guy. I fail to see how the surveillance state will be able to provide for immediate and total protection of the surveillant, apart from being able to call up police, ambulance or fire services and potentially avoid further loss of life or property.

    I always thought that the only people to gain from the surveillance state were those carrying out the surveillance and those bureaucrats who insist that total control of the population will ensure that they can do their job more efficiently and (quoting Pratchett) “finally get the filing done”.

  • guy herbert

    One more thing, and a very important one. Your conception of surveillance is dominated by sound and vision, but that’s only a very minor part of the potential for total surveillance already being applied. There is a vast range of data-surveillence, which is more potent for social control because unlike visual or sound data it allows network analysis of relationships, non linear pattern matching, and data-mining for mass surveillance and fishing expeditions rather than simple watching of individuals. Chemical example) and biological example methods of observation are also getting more sophisticated and pervasive.

  • David Brin wrote a book called “The Transparent Society” which addresses this at length. It’s available in paperback.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Man’s home is his castle only when he stays in it. Any expectation of privacy when one goes out in public is nonsense on the face of it.
    When I read 1984, my question was what makes sure Big Brother would be vigelant in his watching?
    The recent experiment on our border, of puting the cameras on the internet and inviting viewers to call in for suspicious sightings might be more efficient that paid watchers. Perhaps a program to detect criminal behavior migyht be developed, kinda like the speed cameras. Another possibility is retrogade camera use, where when aa crime is detected the suspect can be back traced by viewing earlier pictures from adjacent locations.
    It is going to be a fun world.

  • Quenton

    I would have thought more people would have woke up to the uselessness of total camera surveiliance after the London terror attacks. It took nearly a week to sift through all the tapes, and the authorites even had a very specific (and small) time frame to go through. Even after all that the only thing the police really gained was a picture of the perpatrators. Wow.

    Libertairian principles aside, that is just a massive waste of time and resources. It would even make for a better anti-camera argument as people care far less about ideaolgy than they do their wallets.

  • Julian Morrison

    What does an individual have to gain by being totally surveilled? About the same as having his web page spidered by Google. Nobody should underestimate it!

    This is basically a foretaste of the era of data, in which a child with fit of curiosity will be able to do broader and more accurate research than a university could a decade ago.

    If it weren’t for government, I would embrace all this without reservation.

  • Julian Morrison

    BTW, I think it’s very misleading to think in terms of “the surveillance state”. Even in the UK, most CCTV cameras are private. The unauthorized Saddam execution footage was captured on a witness’s cellphone. People are going to be extremely surveilled, but mostly by each other.

    The real problem is government skimming off this bounty, looking for ways to grow its control and enforce its opinions.

  • Julian Morrison writes:

    What does an individual have to gain by being totally surveilled? About the same as having his web page spidered by Google. Nobody should underestimate it!

    This seems to miss the very obvious point: that what is on someone’s webpage is what they chose to put there. The rest of their life is not there. Therefore there is no useful equivalence.

    Best regards

  • Howard R Gray

    Total surveillance! What a “nice” thought, a touche cool to the psyche.

    I suspect “the total” in total surveillance is, at best, the capture of sound and image and storage of same in vast quantities and not much else. The problem is rational discrimination, interpretation and analysis of the sheer bulk of data, followed by an intelligent response to act or refrain from acting. Better still, if this is all done by some form of police public provision software doing the spadework, the results might dreadful. A far cry from Noddy and his cheery mate PC Plod. It’s a little late to hark back to Dixon of Dock Green.

    My old cranky burglar alarm goes off all on its todd once in a while. Some 45 minutes later, my local Precinct guys and gals mosey on by to see what the deal is. My thought on the matter is that any intruder would be most of the way to Nova Scotia by the time New York’s finest show up. This is probably as it should be. Hell, I am only a consumer of a public service. The only good thing about the alarm is that it makes a horrendous noise, enough to incommode most burglars in the practice of their home grown variety of asset redistribution. I know its low tech, but it sort of works, though I suspect the notice from the security provider on my lawn is the main element in the trick of inducing a deterrence. I don’t think a camera overlooking my lawn, connected to the WWW, would be much better in inducing the constabulary to turn out any sooner. Drive by policing isn’t that effective either and coupled with the synoptic delusion of total surveillance, I am not all that impressed that the “total” has much meaning. Something approaching a brain has to be inserted in the mix to make any of it much use.

    So, given the propensity of the government to run this public snooper-tech world, much like anything else it runs, the outcome will be way less John Brunnerish, than one might imagine. However, given the police ability to get stick and turn it around to hold the wrong end once in a while, the Brave New world will still happen, but laced with a severe dose of unfairness and pythonesque black farce.

    What I wonder is, when will the disguise business will show itself with quick reversible clothing, pull on instant faces, and other gems yet to be invented, rather the visual equivalent of stealth radar. The old stocking over the face just doesn’t cut it any more. That is my 1% of libertarian optimism showing through, there must be some way round all this official ogling.

    Have a happy New Year folks and mind your backs. Big bro might be watching.

  • guy herbert

    I think it’s very misleading to think in terms of “the surveillance state”. Even in the UK, most CCTV cameras are private.

    For now, Julian, for now.

  • guy herbert

    Quenton:

    I would have thought more people would have woke up to the uselessness of total camera surveiliance after the London terror attacks.

    There are different sorts of uselessness. A system can be on no use in forestalling the fanatical or the reckless, while very satisfactory in repressing ordinary dissent, tracking the behaviour of individuals of interest, picking up the careless compliant, and creating an impression of control. The latter functions are of great value to large bureaucratic systems pursuing their own interest, and they are what surveillance systems do most of the time. There is no point in setting them up to catch rare violence to citizens by other citizens, which they won’t prevent and are not generally an important adjunct in prosecuting. Though the pretextual suggestion that that is what they are for has lodged itself firmly in the popular mind to the exclusion of the less concrete, low-intensity, but in aggregate much more important functions.

  • Jacob

    “I think it’s very misleading to think in terms of “the surveillance state”. Even in the UK, most CCTV cameras are private.”

    Here are some points on the up side of new surveillance and data mining technology:
    this technology is available not only to the state but to everyone. More surveillance and data mining means more information for individuals and organizations other than government. More information is useful, it helps improve economic activity, production, comfort. More information is progress, it’s positive.

    The exclusive obsession with government surveillance is a little paranoid.

  • I have been wondering when David Brin would be mentioned here regarding surveillance. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the LP convention in Indianapolis a few years back. Very interesting. In addition to his book The Transparent Society mentioned above, there is also a novel called Kiln People that includes these themes as well as an exploration of what would happen in a society where truly disposable people can be created essentially at will.

    So far as the current discussion:

    Real time surveillance can be done, but only in targeted areas, for now. Software, such as face recognition, voice recognition and emotion recognition, is getting better all the time. Add motion recognition, which is commonly used now, and recordings can be quickly sorted by software and only video that includes people can be presented to human reviewers for later inspection. While a large number of people would still need to inspect that video, I have never known government to shy away from large bureaucracies.

    I think that total surveillance would lead to the criminalization of the lower and middle economic classes, and a further immunity for the upper classes. The lower and middle classes tend to engage in normal human behavior that has been made criminal just as the upper classes do, but the upper classes have the wealth to do so in private. As example I give you intoxication, (alcohol/drugs use), prostitution, theft and political speech.

    The lower and middle classes tend to do these things in public or semi-public view, where cameras are likely to capture the behavior. The wealthy tend to do these things behind closed doors, by having these services or goods delivered, in private residences or in boardrooms where the cameras will not be placed, or in private meetings with pet elected officials.

    Look at the demographics now. It is widely known from research that poor and minority youth use drugs at the same rate as middle class and wealthy youth, yet the poor, and especially minority, youth are arrested at a far higher rate and, being unable to afford better legal talent, tend to be convicted and imprisoned at an even higher rate.

    And if you believe the stories of the Madams Mayflower and Hollywood, of not so recent notoriety, or Xavier Hollander of decades past, the wealthy are at least as active in purchasing sexual services as those that visit street walkers. But who gets arrested more often?

    And with the recent imposition of “protest zones” at political events, forbidding protest where those protested against would actually be inconvenienced by the rabble, restrictions on political speech during elections, or mentioning candidates by name in certain advertisements, depending on who your are and when it is said, not to mention out and out theft, destruction, and censorship by leftist fanatics in universities and calls for arrest and prosecution of dissenters by environmental cultists, public assaults and governmental discrimination based on religious dissent, (see Chester Smalkowski in Oklahoma, a hidden outrage), all done by those with political power, political speech in public becomes less advisable.

    So if and when total surveillance becomes a reality, I predict that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us will widen. It will widen in income, due to the low/middle having lost opportunities due to arrest and conviction records, In social status, due to the same, and in political power, since, at least here in the US, a conviction can revoke your ‘right’ to vote for life, depending on the legal gravity of the offense. In addition, politicians will not want to appear as soft on crime, so penalties will likely increase as tolerance decreases.

    Add to the the restriction on free speech that are starting to ooze into US law, and I start to get very gloomy indeed.

    In a society where normal human behaviors, like seeking intoxicating substances or the use of commercial sex services, or unapproved political speech and protest, (as is starting to occur here in the US), were not illegal activities, where the law was limited to actions that actually harmed people or property, total surveillance might not be as dangerous or offensive to liberty as I think it will be in our current society. But when will that happen? And I still would not like it.

  • Billll

    “Maybe not, if the only laws and behaviour enforcements are modest in scope, and very reasonable.”

    A government agency is like any other living organism, in that it is either growing at about 6%/yr or else it’s dying. No manager will let his empire die like that.

    The ultimate size of such an agency will be asymtotic to 1/2 the population being surveiled, as in cold war East Germany or Bulgaria.

  • Jacob

    “I predict that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us will widen.”

    That’s what the commies always whine about “the gap”… no matter what the subject of the discussion, the “catastrophic widening gap” is always invoked. Nonsense.

    “The ultimate size of such an agency will be asymtotic to 1/2 the population being surveiled, as in cold war East Germany or Bulgaria.”

    If that isn’t paranoia…..

  • Jacob:

    That’s what the commies always whine about “the gap”… no matter what the subject of the discussion, the “catastrophic widening gap” is always invoked. Nonsense.

    The point was that it will be oppressive statism that drives this. Please read more carefully before you start tossing foul words like “commies” around.

    Or am I feeding a troll?

  • Jacob

    “The point was that it will be oppressive statism that drives this. ”

    Oppressive statism is bad. No need to elaborate why.

    The “gap” is just a rhetoric artifact of lefties, it’s nonsense. The “gap”, if there is one, wide or narrow doesn’t matter. The mere notion that a gap is bad or that a “widening gap” is bad or that it exists at all, is commie jargon, there is no substance to this talk.

    If you dislike oppressive statism – you’re correct, I dislike it too, but leave empty jargon out of it.

  • guy herbert

    Leaving aside the idea of a widening gap, though, oppressive statism is bad no matter what portion of the population it oppresses.

    tomWright’s point is applicable to illiberal democracies everywhere and the technocratic states starting to emerge in Europe, where it is the source of an institutional and psycho-social ratchet. The gap is between those who need not fear to be surveilled and those who fear not to be. Those who are subject to greatest surveillance are not those who take the decisions about it, and/or the populace in general can be persuaded to give up its own privacy and autonomy on the basis that the system is intended to supervise some other, underclass or foreign criminals. In the latter case it is analogous con-trick to that that is so successful over taxation: the majority may accept being personally overseen because they believe that this is part of proper supervision of those who they feel threatened by, just as they give up economic autonomy wrongly convinced they are getting out more than they are compelled to give up.

    And just as with tax, to cease to believe the con would to be admit you might have been fooled, to break step and look foolish to the other marchers-in-time, and to be forced to move into the zone of virtual risk where all apprehension is kept in the mind of the dependent. It is easier to stay fooled than face that fear of loss.

  • Guy Herbert writes:

    And just as with tax, to cease to believe the con would to be admit you might have been fooled, to break step and look foolish to the other marchers-in-time, …

    As usual for my fairly rare disagreements with Guy, the difference is where he sees a binary division and I only see a continuum. Join me in having not been fooled; just having had your threshold of acceptance well and truly crossed, to where the balance of benefit is clearly no longer there.

    Some policing, bureaucracy, surveillence, etc is (on balance) appropriate: and hence OK. Going beyond that level, which I see has now happened (being subtly different from “which I now see has happened”) is what is wrong.

    There was no necessity for the government to slide down this slippery slope, from prudent law enforcement, to near police state. They could have decided not to; that they decided otherwise, and with gusto, shows crap judgement.

    And when they whine and plead that they “just fell into it”, bite your cheek to retain touch with reality, and give them the hard stare.

    Best regards

  • guy herbert

    Slide down the slippery slope? They got out a snowboard.

    I don’t think Nigel and I are in disagreement. I’m talking about a peculiar state of denial which entraps a large chunk of the population and inhibits them from recognising what has happened, from considering the balance of advantage and disadvantage in the right context. That is a binary bind for the individual, and isn’t necessarily related to the particular level of statism.

    Think of it as the activation energy of a chemical reaction as an analogy: another state may be “preferred” by the reagents, but you can’t get there from here readily because there is local stability. To react or not react is a binary choice dependent on the activation energy, the depth of the potential well, not on the reaction potential itself.

  • I’m at least partly persuaded, so thank you Guy.

    I also like the chemistraic analogy: empathising is good.

    I’ll offer a non-scientific one in return. If you’re standing still, you might not notice that the treacle has risen to above your ankles.

    Best regards

  • Rik

    I think Total Surveillance or “Participatory Panopticon” (from Jamais Cascio) will only add to the Culture War, presently spreading fast over the West. On one side you’ll have those who’ll happily agree with Cascio’s words “trust is easy, because lying is hard” (& don’t be surprised when that includes all young people who have no qualms about putting their entire life on the net). On the opposite side you’ll have a motley crew of those who know how human cultures in general handle deviant behaviour (whichever). As usual, it’ll have to go too far first.