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Friday, 7 June 2013

Does the public really care if governments spy on them? The acid test may have just begun...

Beyond what looks like irrevocable evidence that US government electronic surveillance goes way beyond what all but the most conspiratorial of conspiracy theorists have theorised is one uncomfortable question: do people care in sufficient numbers to make a difference?

Even more distasteful for me is the blanket secrecy around surveillance.  If we knew what governments actually did in our name to keep us safe we might worry less.

If there was less secrecy we might trust safeguards to actually guard our data, safely.

But the secrecy was necessary to keep us safe, claim the spies.

In fact we were told we couldn't be told if this surveillance was even going on, the names of companies compelled to hand over our data, or how often such requests were being made.

Blanket secrecy around blanket surveillance is an incredibly convenient way of ensuring surveillance practices are never scrutinised by the public.

Democracy is broken if the voters can't know what the government does in their name.

The acid test?

But now, over the next few years, we will finally get to see how the public react to a large-scale general threat to our privacy.

We will also see how market forces react to that threat.  Will citizens in Europe turn their backs on the US tech giants, sparking a new phase in the internet's evolution?

Or will they find it hard to escape the gravitational pull of the established giants? Is privacy worth the effort?

I'm prepared for either outcome.

The public might not care in sufficient numbers.

The public might actually like the increased security (perceived or actual) that such surveillance programmes bring.

A new era

The secret is out.

Once data leaves the devices under your direct control you no longer control who accesses that data.

But does such spying by governments really skew the power balance today; compared, eg, to how it is understood to have done during the reign of the Stasi, since technology has made us all more powerful?

In fact technology brings tools for privacy as well as tools for surveillance; will ready access to tools such as cryptography blunt the instruments of surveillance?

And, given the decentralisation of power with the emergence of strong and powerful corporations - something the anti-capitalists worry about - coupled with the foreign cyber-threat, are governments even the threat they once were?

Or will the new decentralised global power balance work in a twisted way to improve citizens privacy and autonomy; with corporations fighting to keep valuable commercial secrets secret, challenging governments, and challenging each other.

Realistically, can anything change, or is our future predestined?

Whilst I'm absolutely convinced that excessive secrecy is dangerous to democracy, I'm less convinced that the public will care about mass surveillance in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

Can we even expect to control data that leaves our private network?  Why should we expect to; what makes us think we can transmit bytes into the ether and expect to keep them private?

Additionally, few have any real control any more over what data leaves our local devices; things just happen automatically.

So we're left facing a stark choice: join in and put our data at risk, or stay dark and deny ourselves the benefits.

Is privacy synonymous with democracy?

Even if "privacy is dead" (it's not, by the way - we just have to adapt), does that necessarily mean that democracy is dead?

Or can we focus on the wider goal, beyond privacy, of building a data democracy, with privacy just one aspect?  

Can structures providing effective accountability, strong judicial oversight and public transparency mitigate the democratic risks?

Now that the veil of secrecy has been lifted we might all - even the spies - be surprised to learn how the public reacts in the long term.

Increased surveillance might become an accepted and necessary part of life in a modern democracy.

Granted this may seem an absurd position - especially given my previous bloggings about privacy.

It's a no-brainer, right? Democracy is threatened if the government spies on the opposition - using their secrets against them.

But might we all just adapt, relying on fewer secrets, thereby removing our vulnerability to exposure and becoming inherently stronger, rather that merely being good at exploiting others' weaknesses?

Yes, such widespread eavesdropping is worrying.  But there really is no precedent; and no simple answers.


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