June 10, 2013

Edward Snowden, Government Surveillance and the Future

Patrick Marren
Partner

A government contractor named Edward Snowden has identified himself as the source for a recent Guardian article exposing U.S. government surveillance programs that reportedly collected (though maybe did not listen to or read, at least without a court order) on-line and telephone communications of American citizens.

Some scenario thoughts:

1. It is easy to imagine a world in which every single person records everything they do, perhaps at first for medical or self-organizational purposes. Self-mounted cameras already exist and some people already use them (and smart phones, and other recording devices) to monitor and record their own lives. (See these books for details: Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney, and Infinite Progress by Reese.) Byron Reese believes that once the aggregate benefits of sharing personal data (assuming it can be made anonymous) are known, the vast majority of people will participate voluntarily and share their own medical, fitness, diet, and geographic and travel information (and quite frankly everything else) with the world. So this government surveillance program could be a last vestige of a time when people were paranoid about sharing personal details. 

2. On the other hand, paranoia is an instinct that has served humanity very well for hundreds of thousands of years. And any government, and perhaps especially the U.S. federal government, clearly has powers of surveillance and a monopoly on the legitimate use of force (in the words of Max Weber), which can be quite fearful weapons against individual liberty.

3. But I would submit that our traditional proud American hatred of any threat of tyranny by our own government may cause us to overlook another very real peril: private sector surveillance. After all, who actually has more control over your life, the IRS or your credit bureau? The NSA or your boss? Who has more data on your whereabouts and your activities, the CIA or Twitter? The Facebook ads that right now sometimes seem comically off-base, suggesting, e.g., women's pumps for flabby middle-aged fashion-unconscious males, are increasingly getting more eerily on-point. And for some reason, we as a people do not react against this far more inchoate but far more thoroughgoing collection and deployment of personal information on behalf of unknown private sector actors...not all of them domestic. And we have votes over our government, trivial though they may appear, and we have SOME idea what the government is and what it's doing. We have no vote, aside from our buying power, for or against commercial or other non-governmental entities that collect our data, of whom we almost certainly must remain completely oblivious.

4. Yet I have no doubt that Reese's "Digital Echo" and Tierney/Baumeister's "Quantified Self" will indeed come to pass, and a vast enough portion of humanity will allow their personal data to be pooled and exploited, for good and ill, by people they will never meet or know. There are too many obvious benefits that could be offered that will make this transaction - privacy for convenience - as trivial and necessary to the average person as signing up for wi-fi service is today. 

So private-sector, voluntary submission to universal surveillance may just render quaint the notion of personal privacy and old-school clunky inaccurate bumbling government surveillance.

Something there is that does not love a Facebook wall.

Comments  | 

Walter Sandell
It's amazing that corporations, licensed by the state, have more personal information about us than does the state.
Tim Cary
Before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve were naked yet not ashamed. After eating they realized their nakedness and sewed fig leaves together as coverings to hide their nakedness. However, it is difficult to place toothpaste back into the tube. As a society, as we collectively make these decisions of sharing all our personal data with government or private sector, Pandora's open box of information can only provide us with Hope.

Thoughts?