by Jean-Louis Gassée
When we think of government surveillance, we worry about our liberties, about losing a private space where no one knows what we do, say, think. But there is more. Total Surveillance is the enemy of innovation, of anything that threatens public or private incumbents.
No apocryphal levity this week. Instead, a somber look into an almost-present future. For once, Tim Cook isn’t holding his cards close to his chest; he makes no secret of Apple’s interest in wearable technologies. Among the avenues for notable growth (in multiples of $10B), I think wearable devices is a good fit for Apple, more than the likable but just-for-hobbyist TV, and certainly more than the cloudy automotive domain where Google Maps could be a hard obstacle.
Apple isn’t alone, every tech company seems to be developing smart watches, smart glasses, and other health and life-style monitoring devices. (Well, almost every tech company…we haven’t heard from Michael Dell, but perhaps he’s too busy keeping his almost-private company out of Carl Icahn’s clutches.)
To gather more facts for a future Monday Note on wearable devices, I took my usual Play Customer route and followed the example of friends who sport activity-monitoring bracelets such as the popular Jawbone UP wristband (see Frédéric’s experience in a recent MN). I look up on-line review and find more than a few negative comments, but I choose to ignore them and listen, instead, to users who say the bugs have been squashed.
At the nearby Palo Alto Apple Store, a sales gent performs the fitting and the cashectomy with equal competence. Five minutes later, I download the required smartphone app, read a few instructions, and complete a first sync. I’m ready to monitor both my daytime activities and nighttime sleep patterns.
That was three days ago. It’s too early to say much about the product experience, which has been uneventful so far, but a dark, nagging thought comes to fill the void. Here is yet another part of my life that’s monitored, logged, accessible. The somber ruminations of a recent Privacy: You Have Nothing To Fear Monday Note are rekindled. At the time, I wondered if perhaps I was being paranoid. That was before the flow of Edward Snowden’s revelations to The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald.
This is what we think we know so far: The State, whatever that means these days, monitors and records everything everywhere. We’re assured that this is done with good intentions and with our best interests in mind: Restless vigilance is needed in the war on terror, drug trafficking, money-laundering. Laws that get in the way — such as the one that, on the surface, forbids the US to spy on its own citizens — are bent in ingenious ways, such as outsourcing the surveillance to a friendly or needy ally.
If this sounds outlandish, see The Guardian’s revelations about XKeyscore, the NSA tool that collects “nearly everything a user does on the internet”. Or read about the relationship between the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ:
…the Guardian has discovered GCHQ receives tens of millions of pounds from the NSA every year…In turn, the US expects a service, and, potentially, access to a range of programmes, such as Tempora [GCHQ's data storage system].
Those campaigners and academics who fear the agencies are too close, and suspect they do each other’s “dirty work”, will probably be alarmed by the explicit nature of the quid-pro-quo arrangements.
Every day there’s another story. Today, the WSJ tells us that the FBI has mastered the hacking tools required to remotely turn on microphones and cameras on smartphones and laptops:
Earlier this year, a federal warrant application in a Texas identity-theft case sought to use software to extract files and covertly take photos using a computer’s camera, according to court documents.
The surveillance and snooping isn’t just about computers. We have license plate recorders and federally mandated black boxes in cars. And now we hear about yet another form of metadata collection: It seems that the US Post Office scans every envelope that they process. Not e-mail, “sneaker mail”. Reading someone else’s mail is, of course, a federal offense. No problem, we’ll just scan the envelopes so we know who’s writing to whom, when, how often…
To this litany we must add private companies that record everything we do. Not just our posts, emails, and purchases, but the websites we visit, the buttons we click, even the way movement of the mouse…everything is recorded in a log file, and it’s made available to the “authorities” as well as buyers/sellers of profiling information. It’s all part of the Grand Bargain known as If the Product Is Free Then You Are the Product Being Sold.
When asked why Google doesn’t encrypt the user data that it stores, Vinton Cerf, the revered Internet Pioneer turned Google’s PR person, sorry, VP and Chief Evangelist, serenely admits that doing so would conflict with Google’s business model and disrupt user features.
At public events, Vint Cerf, a Google employee who was an early architect of the Internet, has said that encrypting information while it is stored would prevent Google from showing the right online advertisements to users.
I’m not singling out Google: Facebook and many others would have to make the same statement.
We’re now closer to trouble with innovation. In an almost-present future, we’ll have zero privacy. Many will know what we do, what we say, where we are, at all times. This will cast a Stasi shadow over our lives, our minds, our emotions. (See The Lives Of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s dramatization of state-sponsored surveillance in East Berlin.)
Let’s not dwell on the discredited You Have Nothing To Fear retort and turn to what happens to All Things New under a total surveillance regime.
Personal freedoms, civil rights, new ways of doing, thinking, speaking, dressing or undressing, science and philosophy, religion, fashion or cooking or smoking… Anything really new breaks existing canons, the rules, laws, habits, and understandings of the established order.
Total surveillance protects everything, starting with the status quo. With everything open to scrutiny by our Benevolent Guardians, there’s no safe place to discuss ideas that may seem disturbing at first, but that, given time and privacy, can evolve into new standards, behaviors, and technologies.
Anything that sticks out gets pounded.
Take past 100 years. Behold all the disruptive liberties and the inventions that upended public and private incumbents. Now, imagine how many would have been killed in the womb under a total State and private surveillance blanket.
But, you’ll say, we have a democratic system; if we don’t want our privacy invaded, surely we can voice our objection through our votes. After all, we elect and fire our representatives, the ones who make the laws and who hire and fire government executives for us.
Not really, or not anymore.
Two thousand years ago, Juvenal condemned Roman politicians who tried to buy votes with food and entertainment. It was a panem et circenses culture in which society “restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
The politicking in our current demagocracy is just as unsavory. To get elected one must promise to provide more with fewer taxes — or whatever bread and circus the latest Big Data says we crave. Instead of shedding light, the campaigning makes sick entertainment.
Once in office, our solons need money to be reelected so they promptly sell “our” votes to lobbyists who are eager to finance the reelection campaigns. Even worse, these same lobbyists provide the platoons of lawyers and consultants who inject the “appropriate” loopholes into inscrutable laws.
All of this makes (most) business feel like an oasis of sense and good will. Many otherwise capable people turn up their noses at the cesspool of politics and stick to their cleaner fun.
Is the situation hopeless?
I pray not. But I can’t help but see our laws — the tax code is the prime example — as old operating systems that are patched together, that have accumulated layer upon layer of silt. No one can comprehend these rules anymore, they’re too big and complicated to fit in one’s head…they’re seemingly unfixable.
Or perhaps technology itself will come to the rescue. Just as terrorism is viewed as an asymmetric threat in which a small, agile, and stealthy enemy can inflict damage on a giant, perhaps technology will provide us with an asymmetric advantage against surveillance and recreate a modicum of private space for us.
What I don’t see is The State simply renouncing its surveillance, it’s so convenient. Nor do I see us paying for truly anonymous Gmail, Google Maps, or Facebook.