We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

This really does worry me

Imagine audio and video bugs get better and better. Maybe in the form of tiny physical cameras, maybe as viruses that will eventually succeed in penetrating any computer, phone or similar device, maybe as some kind of broadcast or field. There is parallel progress in the science of searching through audio-visual records. Eventually every house, every room, every human body is bugged – saturated with bugs. Of course most of the time no one is interested in you. But if ever you become interesting, they can watch you, not just now, but at any time going back years. What you were doing on any given day. Every time you sang along to your ipod, had sex, mentioned the word “government”. But “they” is not just the government; it is anyone.

46 comments to This really does worry me

  • Snorri Godhi

    Just because you’re paranoiac, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

  • cirby

    By the time we get to that point, pretty much everyone will have “carnivore” bots that will be running around eating the listening devices…

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    There’s no law of nature or history that says offence and defence must evolve in parallel.

    But if you (or anyone) does have a convincing reason to believe that this possibility could be defended against I really would like to hear it.

  • bloke in spain

    Have you thought about the mechanics of this, Natalie? Every one of those bugs would need terabytes of storage capacity. Or that data would have to be transmitted to where there is that storage capacity.Then the computing power needed to cross reference all that data. Because discrete data’s very rarely useful. It’s its relationship to other data tells you things.
    Not saying it’s not technically possible. But the investment required would be colossal. Even with the cheapest of cheap kit. Considering 99.9 & a lot more nines %, of the data gathered would be totally worthless (30 hours of the subject taking a dump, per year? If he takes the newspaper in with him…)
    Targeted maybe, but ubiquitous?

  • bloke in jersey

    Regarding the logistics issue raised by “bloke in spain”, I work in the scientific computing field, and just today I noticed an ad for a $700 Dell desktop computer that has three times the computational power, eight times the RAM, and twice the hard disk space of an entry level supercomputer that my group bought for nearly a million dollars fifteen years ago. We’re a lot closer to 1984 than many think, at least from a technical capacity viewpoint.

  • There is great danger is looking at a graph and extrapolating off the edge of the page. That is how Thomas Malthus and Thomas Piketty vanished up their own apertures so far that they turned inside out. I would not worry about panoptic nanobots just yet 😉

    Not a bad name for an electro-punk band though… Bloke and the Panoptic Nanobots!

  • Patrick Crozier

    Maybe people will become less coy.

  • Mr Ed


    Why are you writing this? Is it a leak of the 2015 UK Labour Party General Election Manifesto?

    By 2018, we will have taken steps to make sure that in every home, every child, every woman, and every pensioner is safer than ever before.

    Of course, as Bis points out, there would be an energy requirement for such surveillance, and data retrieval would generate some signal.

  • Snorri Godhi

    It strikes me that there might be a much lower-tech solution than the carnivore bots suggested above, but i am not technical enough to be sure it’s feasible: I welcome feedback on this.
    My solution would be: living in a Faraday cage (so as to prevent the spy bots from sending out data) and sending an EMP through the home before opening the windows and after closing the windows (so as to destroy any bots within the home). Of course one’s own electronics must be enclosed in Faraday cages (for protection against the EMPs) and one must do one’s private things with the windows closed (so that there are no active bots inside, or if there are, they’ll be destroyed before they can leave with the data).

  • Andy Dwelly

    See, Vernor Vinge – A Deepness in the Sky, ubiquitous surveillance.

  • Roue le Jour

    Electric cats that can hear bugs. And then ideally eat them, but that can wait for 2.0.

  • Runcie Balspune

    It’s not the computing power of cross referencing or the technology, it’s the manpower involved to disseminate the information to decide whether you are a threat, or some kind of blackmail or court proceeding can be brought against you. Whatever the case it will result in the tried and trusted method of some petty tyrant deciding your future on a whim. The main worry should not be technology, it should be the mini-fascists finding their way into power, and the best defence is limited government.

  • Jamess

    Interesting thought Runcie. I wonder whether our best defence against a Government which wants to eavesdrop into every conversation would be to send out a massive amount of junk information that a person would have to sift through.

  • Gareth

    The important bit is this:

    But “they” is not just the government; it is anyone.

    It changes the tone of the question significantly. Bugs in the hands of a state trying to create a national panopticon is dangerous (and also resource intensive). The fear that whatever evidence being horded could be used after the fact for prosecution, persecution or blackmail would be very real. I doubt a state could steal or print enough money to do it to everyone.

    Bugs that anyone anywhere could access at any time is a different proposition. Any moves by state authorities to take advantage of the data they could mine would surely be mutually assured destruction? The minute they pick someone minded to defend themselves and campaign for public support is the minute every person in government becomes interesting to the distributed intelligence and curiosity of the internet. What the effect would be I have no idea but I suppose a possibility is that we would have a massively push towards liberty as the facade of propriety disappeared from those granted authority to rule us. Or at the very least we would stop giving them that authority so cheaply.

  • tomwright

    Turn it around: If we have perfect surveillance over government officials and politicians, would that be all bad?

    Provided it is not centrally controlled, and works both ways ( which is the sticky bit in this) universal surveillance would be as great an equalizer between the weak and powerful as the printing press and gun rights have been.

    Very few average folks, if any, would be a target, but a powerful person who can damage others will be under constant observation. Sort of how god is supposed to work, but real and without the sky-faerie stuff added on .

  • JohnB

    It has been fairly evident ever since micro electronics started crawling out of its diapers (1970?) that eventually anything in the field of data processing would become possible.
    All it needs is time

  • Stuck-Record

    As hinted at above, two-way surveillance is the future – unless TPTB succeed in their efforts to prevent it.

    For example take filming in public. I follow the attempts of those in the US attempting to enforce the US constitution and law on filming public servants, the same public servants – police and Govt officials – who are often at the enthusiastic vanguard of filming the public (“Hey! it’s for your safety!”). Needless to say they aren’t too keen on the public filming them, despite the law being quite clearly on the side of the public. Being abused, jostled, beaten, persecuted, lied about, committed to mental institutions or shot is the usual response.

    Like Hollywood actors campaigning against gun ownership, whilst standing behind their own armed guards, we need to level the playing field. Point out the hypocrisy. Stick the cameras in their face. Tape their conversations. Post them online. Look at them off-duty. Let’s return the favour, after all, “If you’ve got nothing to hide…”

    Only then can we begin to have a debate about ‘privacy’.

    But we are all going to have to get used to the ida that the old fashioned notion of privacy is dead.

  • Actually, see Isaac Asimov, “The Dead Past”. Different hypothetical technology, but the same outcome. He wasn’t optimistic as to where it would lead.

    Everything was thought of by golden age sf writers in the 1950s, pretty much.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Michael Jennings

    I remembered “The Dead Past” some time after writing this post – I can see how people sometimes wrongly think ideas they got from stories read years ago are their own invention.

    That story is also notable for the way that the final outcome is so utterly awful that you are compelled to sympathise with the desperate attempt by the government to suppress the chronoscope technology. A thoroughly un-libertarian moral, although you could also take the moral as being that since attempts to suppress technology cannot succeed forever – the secret only has to get out once – you might as well let it all loose so that the countermeasures can be developed in parallel.

    . . . assuming there are any countermeasures.

  • bloke in spain

    As Perry says, there’s a danger of extrapolating off the edge of the page (nice – must remember that!) Anyone who does engineering will tell you; what may be small problems at one scale, temperature, velocity, whatever can become large problems at another scale…..etc. Current computational tech may be running into this because very small things don’t quite behave the same as not so very small things.
    Now there’s absolutely no reason there mightn’t be a revolutionary breakthrough enables devices small enough to do what’s envisaged & computational power to support it.
    After that breakthrough, are we living in the same world as the one we’re viewing it as a problem?
    We’ve form on this.
    Back in the 40s & 50s it was going to be a world of flying cars. An extrapolation from helicopters, hovercraft etc We still haven’t got flying cars* because there’s an upper limit on the energy storage density needed to supply the power for one. Yet that world that still hasn’t hacked flying cars would be almost unrecognisable to someone stepped in from 1950. If we hacked the energy storage density problem, it wouldn’t just affect flying cars. It’d change so many other things it’d be another 1950 to 2014 jump. Single stage to orbit’d be something you could do from your driveway, for a start.

    *Yeah, I know. Now show me one you can just jump in & commute to the office & back.

  • Andy Dwelly

    I haven’t read The Dead Past so I can’t comment but I’ll see if I can track it down. WRT Vinge’s ubiquitous surveillance – it wasn’t that he was making a uniquely novel point about the technology – it seemed it was inevitable even a decade ago. What he emphasised was that cultures can make an explicit choice to reject it rather than drifting into the situation by default.

    That’s an idea that bears repeating.

  • bloke in spain

    By the way. Anyone remembered the principle behind the Panopticon?
    It wasn’t that they were watching you all the time. It’s that you couldn’t be sure they weren’t watching you now.
    Too much of this bullsh*t & you’ll build your own panopticon society for them.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Asimov’s “The Dead Past” is a classic story.

    In 1976, another great SF author, Damon Knight, wrote a short story called “I See You”, which he described as a “compressed novel” and a response to Asimov. In Knight’s story, a man discovers the “retroscope”, which allows a viewer to see anywhere at any time in the past.

    He arranges for several thousand units to be manufactured and distributed, and also sends out thousands of copies of the design. This insures that the genie is out of the bottle, out of anyone’s control, and can never be put back.

    The result is utopian, not dystopian. (Thus Knight’s calling it a response to Asimov.)

    Privacy disappears, yes, but… “Every one that doeth evil hateth the light.” (John 3:20) “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” (Justice Louis Brandeis)

    When no crime against the public can be concealed, the side benefits of state power would be greatly diminished.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    When no crime against the public can be concealed, the side benefits of state power would be greatly diminished.

    But it’s not just crimes that cannot be concealed, and not just the state looking at them. In that scenario no moment of private tenderness could be concealed either. Anyone who has come to the interest of the public, voluntarily or involuntarily, would know that every moment of their past and present could and probably would be viewed by their fans. For more ordinary people, think of the destructive effects on human relationships of knowing that your whole life lay open to the view of a jealous ex, or (perhaps worse) an over-protective parent.

  • bloke in spain

    But Natalie, how much over protective parenting could survive a spotlight being shone on *their* lives.
    I mean… we all know that theoretically our parents must have had sex. But watching a recording of them performing on the back seat of a car down Lovers’ Lane? And not even with each other?

  • Runcie Balspune


    The same applies to the watchers, and with the current crop of our esteemed superiors, who do you think actually be more frightened of the lack of “private tenderness” in their life, whether it be extra-marital, beastly or of dubious association? The problem is when the watching is one way, that has always been the problem, and technology is far more likely to make the watchers of us all rather than of the special ones, and our fight to reduce unlimited government power helps too.

    Who knows? Perhaps we’d end up with a squeaky clean honest political over-class for a change?

  • bloke in spain

    “Perhaps we’d end up with a squeaky clean honest political over-class for a change?”
    Or perhaps we’d end up with a smutty imperfect honest political class.
    Because this wouldn’t just work both ways. It’d work all three ways.
    It’d make us, as individuals, come to terms with we’re not the paragons of virtue we’d like everyone to think we are. And accept other people are much like us.

  • Indeed, BiS. If I must be ruled by someone (which I very much doubt, but for the sake of the argument), I’d rather it be by people just like the rest of us than by squeaky-clean robots. If they can be made less powerful than they currently are by making their own lives as transparent to us as ours are to them, it would be a great improvement compared to the current state of affairs.

  • Nick (Natural Genius) Gray

    But, Natalie, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, surely? (Just kidding!)
    Still, it would set off religious wars, as people refuse to believe what the past reveals! Earth not made in six literal days? Satan must be controlling it!! Burn this evil device!!

  • Laird

    If anyone’s interested, Asimov’s The Dead Past is available online here.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Laird, wow, thanks! :>)

    Natalie: I’m with you on the importance of privacy.

    It seems to me that human beings have a built-in need for privacy, however much the degree of need for it, or sensitivity to the lack of it, may vary among us.

    There is a great deal in my life past and present that I do not wish to share at all, or only with very select others.

    And in any case, surely I ought (ideally) to be the one who has ultimate control over what I share with whom. Whether that be some part of my physical property, or my thoughts, or my body parts, or the state of my self, or the facts of my life…past or present.

    “Ideally,” of course, is not to be reached in this Vale of Tears. But we should take our privacy very seriously, and guard it well, just the same.

  • llamas

    Snorri Godhi – a mere Faraday Cage isn’t going to do it. For the approach you describe to work, you’re going to need shields that will hold back a TEMPEST/HEMP-level event, because that’s what you’re going to need to propagate for each bot-clearing event.

    That means a solid, continuous ferrous metal enclosure, with all POEs suitably sealed and gasketed.

    It’s going to make getting to and from the loo a bit of a struggle, really.

    Plus – billions of uncontrolled TEMPEST/HEMP-level events every day?

    It’s interesting that there was an analyst on (whatever business radio channel this morning) giving Facebook a maximum of 18 months more to turn any sort of a profit or face the wall. This is a network whose intrusiveness is enthusiastically embraced by its zillions of users. But if a profit (in whatever format) is not forthcoming very soon, it will die. I doubt very much that we will ever see the ‘Total Information’ saturation described (even though the technology is already relatively-trivial) simply because there’s no demned profit in it – for anyone.



  • bloke in spain

    There’s been a lot recalling SciFi novels in the comments.
    Worth bearing in mind. The formula for writing SciFi is posit a new development or two & build a story about where it leads. Very few SciFi authors try & write stories set in the actual futures would have their gadgets. Hence much of the SciFi of the mid years of C20th was white Middle Americans in spaceships. Because white Middle American readers couldn’t relate to much past white Middle America.
    Real developments, in the real world, come with all the other developments the real world throws up.
    Reading back, you’re talking about this in the terms of how it affects people like you & what people like you should do about it. Worth considering; by the time a thing like this has flowered the world it’s flowered in will be one where white Middle Americans (& probably white West Europeans) will be a fairly insignificant minority in an entirely different global world. It possibly doesn’t matter what you think.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)


    Yes. Freedom from continual unwanted scrutiny is up there with freedom of expression. Indeed they are inextricable, since many – most – people cannot express themselves freely if they know or believe they are being watched. Human life and society might go on after the end of “The Dead Past” (indeed, I think someone wrote a sequel after Asimov’s death), but the type of human being produced by such conditions would almost be unrecognisable as coming from the same species. It goes way beyond whether secrets are revealed. Every human interaction, the most trivial minutae of behaviour, would be affected.

  • bloke in spain

    “Freedom from continual unwanted scrutiny is up there with freedom of expression. Indeed they are inextricable, since many – most – people cannot express themselves freely if they know or believe they are being watched.”
    Whoops. Bang goes a billion Christians who believe they live their lives under a the watchful gaze of an all seeing deity. And over a billion Muslims, under the same impression. Not to mention a billion Chinese inheritors of Confucianism who reckon they’ve their ancestors looking over their shoulders.
    “Most people”?

  • Mr Ed

    Freedom from continual unwanted scrutiny is up there with freedom of expression.

    Indeed, and I read a ‘by whom’ question into that quote and answered it myself without extrapolating to beliefs in benign (not always so, granted) supernatural beings, whether imagined or not.

    Funny that the Left hate truth yet wish to know the truth about their enemies, so that they might lie about them.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    bloke in spain,

    “Bang goes a billion Christians who believe they live their lives under a the watchful gaze of an all seeing deity.”

    No, because of the difference between a perfectly good, omniscient God, “who knew you in your mother’s womb” and imperfect humans.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Llamas: i’m afraid i’d need more technical details.
    Did i make it clear that my proposal was meant to eliminate (small, hard to detect) spy bots only within one’s living quarters?

    As for going to the loo, there is an even simpler solution: turn off the light in the loo; then the spy bots cannot see anything. You can suffuse the loo with IR light if you are worried about that.
    Showers would be a much bigger problem: it’s difficult to shower in darkness. Also, i guess more people would be interested in watching people showering than would be interested in watching people using the loo.

  • Snorri Godhi & all those who have commented on practicalities – thanks for your comments. If I don’t respond, it’s through lack of knowledge, not lack of gratitude. What would be really nice is if someone could credibly announce, “I am a world authority on this sort of thing, proof here, here and here, and don’t take it personally, Natalie, but your fears are idiotic.” The alternative, “I am a world authority on this sort of thing, proof here, here and here, and writing this from my metal-walled air-filtered basement” would also be of interest.

    What bugs me (ha ha) is that bloke in jersey and johnB are correct to observe the colossal amount of progress in data-storing and data-sifting that has taken place. For instance I can now from where I sit search through a considerable proportion of all the books ever written in order to find the origin of a half-remembered quotation. A vast change since circa 1994 when I first started regularly using the internet. It’s not crazy to see this trend continuing. OK, extrapolating from past trends is obviously not infallible, but it usually is the way to bet.

  • llamas

    Snorri G – well, I am an authority on this sort of thing.

    The question is whether you want to disrupt the bots (interfere with their ability to transmit/receive/store data) or to destroy their abilities entirely? You said ‘destroy’, I took you at your word.

    The first is easy to do, but leaves them functional – and you’re always guessing about how ‘hardened’ they are against such insults. Your Faraday cage would probably work, though.

    The second requires energy levels several orders of magnitude higher, since you have to generate physically-destructive energy levels within the bots – enough to burn tracks within the electronics. That is the sort of EMP event which to which you referred – high-energy, extremely-high-frequency – an essentially-instant pulse has an essentially-infinite frequency and an essentially-zero wavelength – and no Faraday cage can attenuate that – it needs to be seamless, continuous, relatively-thick and ferrous, to allow the electric fields to induce electromagnetic fields in the shield surface, thus generating eddy currents which sink the energy to ground.

    The kinds of surveillance devices being thought of now don’t require any light at any wavelength form any source. They work using (other 3D mapping approaches) which allow them to ‘see’ in real time. Turning lights off or on won’t impact them at all.



  • llamas

    @ Natalie Solent – I won’t claim to be a ‘world authority’ on this sort of thing (that’s a pretty big claim) but I do know whereof I speak, and your fears are not groundless. There are surveillance technologies rolling out now that would make all of us – including me – blink in amazement, and we should not expect those genies to remain in the bottle. What’s used to day to snare ‘militants’ and ‘terrorists’ in far-flung lands can and will be used tomorrow to come after you for putting your potato peelings in the ‘wrong’ bin. Every power available to the state eventually expands in its applications, why would we think that this would be any different?



  • Mr Ed


    There are numerous engineering issues that should limit the scope for surveillance of the type that concerns you.

    1. Light levels. Cameras need light, and to focus. Infra-red cameras could work off body heat in darkness, but would be unlikely to often record recognisable images, resolution is poorer with infra-red. Even if the cameras did work, how much data would be provided that was simply ‘noise’?

    2. Sound: A microphone is needed to relay/record sound, it would need a certain size to accurately record sound and to not be drowned out. If the microphone is streaming, then it will be sending data over a link to a point for analysis (or hijacking your device). But at some point, that’s an awful lot of stuff to be sending back for checking, and it would probably slow down your data links (and who would pay for it?). Word/voice recognition software might ‘flag’ key words, (or face/object recognition might light up when it sees you and sees, say, a ‘gun’ shape, and, say PdH 🙂 ). Mind you, have you ever tried Apple Dictation? Can you imagine what it would miss, and what it might find that wasn’t there? I tried a legal document on auto-dictation, and it rendered ‘gross misconduct’ as ‘Christmas bonus’.

    3. If you have a smart phone or camera tablet, you are already carrying around a potential bugging device, and you could simply leave it in another room when not in use, or place it in a bag (or a Faraday cage of foil).

    4. At the end of the process, a judgment would have to be made on what to do with the data (although I suspect many politicians would be content that their ‘servants’ are watching us all, or could be, at any time, with the politicians gloating in having got that over their insolent subjects). However, those judgments will require real people to be employed in real time to make real decisions, and of course, to reveal themselves or their agents at some point. We know from experience that the really dangerous are likely to be either ignored or watched by idiots who are decision making on PC grounds, so they will ignore anything truly dangerous and go for plausible false positives in the main. E.g. anyone singing Morning has Broken, as Cat Stevens recorded it, and he is, you know…. It is not economic for a State to engage too many people in this sort of thing. The Stasi failed in East Germany in the end (but they seem to have been re-employed, at least in spirit, in UK Social Services).

    And you could always play this song from 1984, by Rockwell “Who’s watching me?” with the wonderful lines “And I don’t feel safe anymore, Oh, what a mess, I wonder who’s watching me now? WHO? The IRS?”. That was 30 years ago with Reagan in the White House. It doesn’t sound so implausible now, but that’s because of the Congress being what it is and has been.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Natalie, llamas, et al: sorry to be late in getting back to you.
    Natalie, i fear that you should not allow any world expert to allay your fears, because no world expert can predict what new technologies will come up.
    Still, it is worth extrapolating into the NEAR future.
    BTW if you started using the web in 1994, you are 1y ahead of me.
    I still remember the very 1st time i started Netscape: within 1 minute, in comes my boss and says: aha! wasting time on the web! or something to that effect.

    Llamas: maybe i understand your point now. But what if i am satisfied with erasing all memories in the spy bots before re-opening the windows? could one do that with a “reasonable” EMP?

    The kinds of surveillance devices being thought of now don’t require any light at any wavelength form any source.

    But that’s because they have their own sources innit?
    And is that practical for small spy bots?

  • Tedd

    Mr Ed:

    This is well outside any area of expertise I might have, so take my views with a grain of salt. But I’m not sure those limitations are indeed limitations, even though everything you said is true (so far as I can tell). Resolution of a single device is limited by light levels and wavelength, yes, but data from multiple low-resolution sources can be merged to form a much higher resolution image. And the same principle applies to sound. Statistical methods can also be applied to judgements about what data to look at.

    It will probably remain true that innocent people will be hassled while dangerous people are ignored. But in a way that’s the core issue. If “the system” perfectly captured the bad guys and perfectly ignored the not bad guys it would be a lot harder to make a case against it, no matter how intrusive it was.