As I read the news these days I can’t help thinking that cyberpunk has happened. Situations envisioned by writers of speculative fiction have become our daily reality. Most of us now realize that we’ve long been the targets of eavesdropping and spying. It’s no longer crazy talk to bring up the data center the NSA is building in, shall we say, a less-traveled section of Utah. Friends who’d never given much of a thought to government intrusion of this type now talk about feeling a need to be careful what they say over Skype. And we’re finally starting to see lawsuits challenging the interpretation and implementation of the laws the administration claims as an excuse for watching all of us all the time.
All this new awareness is a positive factor. Where the attention and energy are directed now seems to be the critical issue. Will we find ways to ensure that our communications are relatively free and private, or will we opt for short-term convenience and a false sense of safety from so-called terrorists? In some ways this parallels the choice we have to make regarding the environment: either we wake up as a species and stop destroying our only currently available living space, or we remain hogs in our own slop and the earth purges itself of us at some point. I retain hope that humanity will get it together, but the ability of government to watch everything is a huge threat. Constant universal surveillance is an enormously powerful tool for repressing dissent; government exists to preserve privilege; and privilege is exactly the force that resists change.
The threat is exacerbated by the use of algorithms to do the surveillance. Naturally the NSA and its buddies don’t have enough analysts to look at or listen to everything that’s intercepted. So they use computer programs to examine the haul and flag interesting bits. These programs implement algorithms for locating the interesting bits, and herein lies a problem: computers don’t understand context, irony, or protest, nor do they give a damn about privacy or indeed any law not written into their code. They are perfectly abstract entities that operate by the rules of logic in the developental space they occupy; they go where they will and do what their own internal rules require.
I’ve got two proposals that might help us in this situation. First and to my mind vital is to change the way we think of programs such as operating systems and network software. At a minimum, all public offices and departments of government should run free software, “free” in the sense of the Free Software Foundation. This should especially include all software used for voting and counting votes. The basic software infrastructure should be freely available to any member of the public who wants it, and strong encryption should be integrated at all levels. Some of this is already available in the form of Linux, and the fear so many users feel when they think of leaving the warm embrace of the mega-corporations is indicative of the emotional manipulation that has taken place in modern society.
The second proposal is to do our own personal spying and not leave it up to algorithms. Governments, even so-called democratic governments, enforce the will of those in power. Taking this too far got Morsi dumped in Egypt, and analogous behavior may lead to changes in the Senate’s filibuster rule here. Every government has to pay some attention to popular sentiment, but all power corrupts and absolute powers of surveillance cannot but corrupt absolutely. We should find ways to prevent surveillance by machine as much as possible, and restrict such spying as we do to those who clearly present a direct threat.
The first proposal might happen. The second, I’m not holding my breath on.