Security Begets Self-Censorship (and the Stasi on the NSA…?! plus inverse eschatology)

Choice quote: “That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl…”

I mentioned before that one unexpected downside of the recent leaks is there’s much less incentive to not use the data for random things so the spying stays quiet.

Here’s another problem inherent to living in a situation where widely-known surveillance continues unabated: self-censorship.

Anyone who’d lived in a totalitarian state does this. I’ve mentioned before how, in (former) East Germany, I cracked a joke about a door being the “secret back entrance” in response to a question — and got a genuinely horrified sorry-for-asking in reply.

If you know your every move might be watched, the instinct is not to push boundaries: the “panopticon” effect of old.

All of a sudden life gets a little grayer, curiosity and discovery fall by the wayside because you might get labeled a potential future terorrist by some machine-learning algorithm… and targeted for who-knows-what automated clandestine activity.

After all, automated algorithms have been used to mark people for execution for the last decade or more* — why not get them fired or transferred to janitorial where they can’t make trouble?


Maybe everyone will spot the Punji stick pit, abandon their social networking accounts (deleting just gives the algorithms another data point, the data never truly gets deleted) and “Will it Blend?” their smartphones…

Perhaps we’ll see a trend of people moving back to face-to-face conversation, meeting people in pubs, sending letters in the mail — oh wait, they’ve been bulk-scanning the outside of envelopes for years to get the “metadata”.

Or at least jumping on the train/subway/bus instead of on video chat — except cameras with facial recogntion and microphones with voice recognition.

Okay fine wearing a baseball cap and a department store’s worth of cosmetics and walking/biking where possible goddammit — just don’t try it in London, they’ll probably declare baseball caps a violation of some council ordinance and slap you with an ASBO.

Anyway, the solution is probably to leave as little data-trail as possible, within reason, and maneuver your life so it’s not vulnerable to random algorithms the guys in Human Resources decided would help streamsize the company. “But s|he’s been labeled a maybe potential future terrorist!” is a lot less convincing an argument to people who exist outside the bureaucracy.

Fun fact– a tiny handful of Jews managed to survive the Nazis… while living in Germany. In interviews, they reported the people that helped them were almost all entrepreneurs, freelancers, artists, prostitutes, and the like.

The Stasi comments on the NSA: Well, former Stasi anyway.

A smile spread across his face. ““You know, for us, this would have been a dream come true,” he said, recalling the days when he was a lieutenant colonel in the defunct communist country’s secret police, the Stasi.

“It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.””

Inverse eschatology: One of the cornerstone claims of global decline theories, a claim that’s persisted for decades, is that of “peak oil.” The idea that, right around now, we’ll start to see global oil reserves decline, triggering chaos mayhem and zombies. It seems that claim has proven false. Not because the previous estimates of reserves were way off, but because technology has advanced and entirely new kinds of reserves have been made accessible. The environmental problems still make it something of a lose-lose scenario. Time to start selling that Manhattan condo?

“Don’t panic: just because Google, Facebook, Skype, Verizon and other companies are routinely monitored by the CIA doesn’t mean that somebody is watching you every time you order groceries online or voice-chat your sister in Seoul. It just means that they could if you gave them a reason to do so. That means you can relax – right up until the time when you want to go to a protest, or your sister does, or you support the fact that several thousand complete strangers did.[…]

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked. To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy. That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl, because it’s their job to know about such things. There is a non-zero cost to this sort of awareness.

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard”. Self-censorship is significant in a world where, increasingly, as the tech journalist Quinn Norton observes, “falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same: it looks like typing”.

There are still ways to operate in private. If I want to have an online conversation or make a transaction that I’m absolutely sure can’t be snooped on, there are tools I can download, software I can teach myself to use. But it’s a faff, and it can protect you only so far unless you choose to go entirely off-grid, and I’ve been addicted to Facebook since 2006. It’s far less trouble to modify your behaviour so you don’t ever say anything that might give the wrong impression. It’s easier, in short, to behave.

Fighting for the basic privacy that our grandparents took for granted is exhausting, so, instead, we might change how we speak and act, subtly, without even knowing that we’re doing it. The word that Michel Foucault uses to describe this type of modified behaviour is discipline. We might not make jokes about blowing up airports on the internet any longer, because we know that if we’re caught there will be consequences. We might not make any more unauthorised searches on our work computers. We might take care what we download.

The chilling disciplinary effect taking place in the digital age affects everyone. Whether we tolerate further intrusions on our privacy or continue to self-censor as a response to surveillance is up to all of us.”

%d bloggers like this: