April 22, 2004

Big Brother and His Little Siblings

Pro et Contra is a series of public debates on technology an ethics at KTH. Today's subject was surveillance and society, framed in terms of Orwell's 1984 and with among others the national police commissioner Sten Heckscher, philosophy professor Sven-Ove Hansson and two of his grad students
and IT-strategist Pär Ström. It was a lovely example of Swedish conflict avoidance. The philosophers avoided being too normative, suggesting frameworks for judging surveillance as better and worse - not acceptable or unacceptable. Pär warned that we were entering into a 1984 world, but did little to suggest that anything could be done while Sten pointed out that intrustions into personal integrity might be necessary for the rule of law and legal security.

In the end, I was left with the impression that it was Sten who got to be normative because he was running things - a typical result when philosophers and debaters abandon normativity in the interest of preserving a cozy atmosphere and avoiding having to take a firm stand on complex and troubling questions.

Some of my thoughts:

The basic framing was in terms of Orwell's 1984, Boye's , Kallocain, Huxley's Brave New World and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: the canon of classic dystopias. It showed in the style of debate: the threat was always seen as the centralized information gathering powers of government, corporations and media, and the remedies always in the form of either laws and regulations, or technology. Very similar to the debates held around 1980 in Sweden as the integrity risks of computer databases were realized. But where were the new visions? David Brin, Bruce Sterling and Vernor Vinge have described new, potentially far
more worrysome aspects of ubiquitious surveillance. But these modern visions were alien to the debate.

The core assumption that is hard to shake is that power is scalar, something that can be measured along a simple scale of powerlessness to ultimate rulership, and that surveillance ability follows this scale. At most it is possible to recognize that there exists multiple independent groups exerting power, like the government, the corporations and the media (with internal hierarchies and divisions). They are the wardens watching from the panopticon one-way mirror central tower.

But the prisoners are all watching back. They might not see exactly what is going on in the tower, but the wardens cannot even open a window without allowing somebody to see some of what they are doing. They are getting constrained by the immense observing power of the public.

We are also seeing the emergence of micro powers. Pär showed a sociograph based on traffic analysis - I have done similar graphs as a hobby. With some training anybody can do data mining and public information intelligence gathering that can pick up sensitive information. Fans use the net to track celebrities collaboratively. Blogs act as distributed journalism. Wireless cameras are selling well on the net and political groups build maps of their opposition. That most people do not use these tools is of little matter; the point is that the entrance costs of becoming a surveillance power is decreasing and more and more groups are doing it in one way or another.

The debate is usually framed in terms of protecting the privacy/integrity of people while achieving other social goods like justice, freedom of contract between employers and employees, openness etc. But this balance is assumed to be set by a central decision. While the surveillance powers of the police and employers can be regulated in this way, it is far harder to achieve it among a heterogenous, international and diffuse mass of mini-powers that rapidly adapt to changing technology. It is of course possible to ban the use of private monitoring, but if the ways monitoring are done change fast enough and are highly diverse the ban becomes unenforceable. In the long run, if nothing changed, a dynamic balance would likely emerge with the right amount of social norms, regulations and leeway for a working society with advanced surveillance. But as things are changing fast this balance will not appear. Worse, rapidly introducing regulations in a panic against the changes tend to freeze current ideas and imbalances in place in slowly adapting rules that may rapidly become irrelevant and undermine legal security.

Perhaps one way of handling this would be technological adaptations. It was suggested that technology should be designed to minimize electronic traces on the net. But that assumes that all software is written according to centralized specifications and not evolution - the quick hack I throw together and later is spread among my friends (and perhaps later incorporated into other systems if it is useful) might introduce a new form of electronic traces.

Pär envisioned a 1-10 scale between anarchy and police state, suggesting that reasonable people would seek to stay somewhere in the middle (with some serious spread on exactly where). His claim was that new technology had pushed us towards the police state side. I disagree. New technology has enabled us to go in both directions, quite possibly simultaneously! It is not impossible to envision an anti-terrorism police state that is constantly harassed by citizens spying on each other, institutions and the government. Technology enables things, it very seldom forces particular cultures and societies.

One can add another dimension to his scale, a transparency dimension: in an opaque society it is hard to get information about others. Powerful groups are better at it, but they still have to work hard to do so. In a transparent society information leaks strongly. Again, powerful groups are better at gathering it, but they have a multitude of little brothers picking up pices all over the place and quite possibly putting them together. In this 2D diagram we get four extremes: opaque anarchy, opaque police states, transparent anarchy and transparent police states.

Leaving the power distribution issue aside, do we have any choice in the level of transparency? It is here where I think the debaters ignored David Brin's transparent society at their own peril (if they knew about the book). His main claim, which I agree with, is that new technology enables far more transparency than opaqueness, and given the human desire of more information about others (and the competitive advantages of such information) we will tend to move towards more transparency. The problems of controlling surveillance when it becomes cheap and technologically easy in a heterogenous society prevent most attempts of reining it in.

Brin's insight was that if we are to live in a more transparent society, we better make sure it is a good society. Open societies require accountability besides transparency and freedom of expression. As long as the debate is framed in terms of how to limit and control surveillance rather than how to ensure that it and the gained information are used accountably it will not produce any gains in democracy. Even a fairly repressive society can create strict regulations for surveillance - more regulation is good news for regulators, administrators and monitors, and not necessarily for the citizens (especially since they are likely to be more regulated than authorities). A society that seeks to construct means of accountability creates feedback loops that help limit abuses and instill the dynamical balance of society and surveillance faster.

Feedback loops and the Little Siblings are a better defense against Big Brother than asking Big Sister to keep an eye on him. She might be good at it, and we might trust her, but she cannot be everywhere all the time.

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