State surveillance of personal data: what is the society we wish to protect?

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Tom Stoppard
The Guardian
Monday 9 December 2013
One of the writers who signed a letter demanding an international bill of digital rights, says ‘our masters are in the grip of a delusionary nightmare’

Tom Stoppard

What in principle would justify the scope of the surveillance revealed by the Snowden leak? Would it be enough, for example, if it could be shown that a specific potential act of terrorism had been prevented by, and could only have been prevented by, the full breadth and depth of what we now have learned is the playing field of the security services?

We should hesitate before we stray off the touchline. The idea that public safety, the safety of the innocent, is an absolute which trumps every other consideration, is tacitly abandoned in the way we live.

Nobody would be killed on the roads if the speed limit were 10 miles an hour. Flying would be safer if airport security demanded body searches with no exceptions and the examination of every item in every piece of luggage. On the matter of surveillance in general we have, without much discussion, learned to live with almost blanket surveillance by CCTV in our towns and cities. As a result thousand of crimes, including murder, have been solved and perhaps many more prevented. But how many more would there have been if we doubled the number of cameras, or increased them tenfold, a hundredfold?

Between that and the surveillance we are now talking about there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative difference which hardly needs pointing out. The cameras are in public places, they are not in our houses or our cars or even in our gardens. By contrast, the world of surveillance operated by the people we pay to guard us exceeds the fevered dreams of the Stasi.

Even so, let’s go carefully here. The Stasi were not dealing with a global threat of murderous malignity. The constituency of everything to be feared has also been altered dreadfully by a technology which vastly underwrites a capacity for evil as it does the capacity for the social good. As for our spooks, I know what I want from them. I want them to eavesdrop on the phones, the emails, on every tap of the keyboard of anybody who comes under suspicion. Somebody somewhere has the responsibility, indeed the necessary duty, of identifying those who bear us ill. I would like there to be secret cameras in their houses. I would applaud the technological means to survey and interpret every breath they take. However, metaphors for the expansion from this selflimiting scope beggar the imagination. If the world of secrets is its own universe, here we have an expansion of the universe which brings to mind something cosmological.

It had to happen. When all that possibility of expansion became available the spooks were going to avail themselves of it as naturally as night follows day.

Imagine that some law enforcement agency received reliable information that a drug lord or a suicide bomber or a murderer on the run was at this moment hiding out in … let’s say Beaconsfield. Should we have a problem with the idea that for the next few days there was going to be blanket electronic surveillance on every message or metadatum flowing in and out of Beaconsfield? Would I get worked up about that? Not much. How about Swindon? Manchester? You can see where this is going. At some point in the expansion there is a phase transition our attitude will undergo. Something that seemed OK no longer seems OK.

The impulse we are now experiencing goes back as long as we have been living in groups. How much do we owe each other? How much of our very self, our individuality, our privacy, our subjective and autonomous freedom to live as utterly unique human beings, is up for grabs on the say so of whoever is making the rules for the group, not withstanding that the rulemakers have been validated by all of us?

It is no light matter to put in jeopardy a single life when it is the very singularity of each life which underpins the idea of a just society. But it appears to me that our masters are in the grip of the delusionary nightmare of completeness: the complete annihilation of every rogue bacillus. It’s as if there is a belief that in the end the virus has no riposte, that there cannot be and will not be a means to evade blanket security if it is blanket enough.

What is the society we wish to protect? Is it the society of complete surveillance for the commonwealth? Is this the wealth we seek to have in common – optimal security at the cost of maximal surveillance? Not that anybody asked us. It takes a brave newspaper to have forced the question into the open.


  1. Bah! The 1950’s? It was a highly centralized “democratic” fascist state from the beginning, Eric_G.

    Anti-Federalists Prophesied The End Of Freedom

    Your apparent faith in your overlords, is disturbing.

    “In a back alley near downtown Fresno, about 40 people gathered Thursday for a candlelight vigil beside several vacant, boarded-up homes — a blight they consider one of the city’s biggest problems.” …

    Sometimes people wear coats.
    People sometimes eat apples.

  2. I think we all screwed up when we told governments of the world to keep the Internet wild and free. There’s been an attitude since the early days of the commercial Internet that the default reaction is “all legislation is bad legislation.” Because there’s no law against what the NSA is doing, they’re taking the stance that what they’re doing is perfectly fine.

    Remember that courts rule time and time again that electronic communications should be treated like a conversation on a sidewalk, anyone can hear you and you should not have any expectation of privacy. We all know that’s bullshit, that the network should be treated differently, but because there’s been no specific legislation defining what can and cannot be done in cyberspace the government isn’t doing anything wrong (of course, I’m not a lawyer). Most of us feel that electronic communication should fall under the same rules as a physical letter in an envelope, protected by the 4th amendment. However because it suits the government, they see it differently.

    I’m really surprised that there’s been no movement to define cyber rights at the Constitutional amendment level. At the beginning of the 20th century our constitution radically changed with a few amendments that were rushed through in a relatively short time. They took our country from a decentralized federalist system to a highly centralized “democratic” fascist state in less than 50 years, with very little debate. Clearly there’s need for restraint to be put on government when it comes to electronic privacy, the population is nearly 100% in agreement (when it’s explained to them), yet no action is being taken aside from begging the Congress to vote down specific bills a few days before they come up for a vote.

    It seems to me it should be possible to get a “28th amendment” movement started without much more than a hashtag campaign. A few clearly written sentences could easily define our right to private communications between 2 or more parties and any governmental limits on said right. Of course, the courts should be treating electronic comms like physical communication, but that’s clearly not going to happen. I could even see Congress get behind an amendment. I’d bet there’s a lot of extortion by 3 letter agencies going on to make sure they get to keep their funding (and get terrible oversight). Somebody outed Anthony Weiner, right?

  3. Whipped and/or conditioned, comrade Pavlovian.

    I thought of Tom Stoppard when I read about this way of looking at the world in the article, What We Missed in The Hunger Games:

    “Sometimes people wear coats. People sometimes eat apples.” …Sometimes whole cities need to be under total surveillance. ?

    At least Mr. Stoppard got the part right about wondering what kind of world all this surveillance activity is creating/where it leads to… as if it were a bad direction.

    How-freaking-ever; as in the article about The Hunger Games, it is interesting (sad?) how Mr. Stoppard seems to interpret the message, and how he frames it… in a moral light?

    • @Roth – The answer was put to words in the 1500’s.
      “A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.”

      The Politics of Obedience
      (There is a free MP3 out there somewhere too)

      • “gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.”

        Kind of like falling asleep in a pile of snow?

        Yeah, I still don’t see the ‘why’ of it.
        I’ll have to re-read that Mises link.

        Was it in the novel 1984 where a character talked about the warm embrace of submission?
        That scene reminded me of descriptions I’ve read about the warm feeling a person gets when they feel their own blood as it runs out their self-infected slit wrists.


        • @Roth – “I-just-don’t-’get’-that.”
          And that is a good thing for you and those around you.

          1984 was about finally submitting your ego to “endless war for profit and control” and the “Brother (state)” lie. Pretty close to the same message, but updated to the 20’th century.

  4. “Imagine that some law enforcement agency received reliable information that a drug lord or a suicide bomber or a murderer on the run was at this moment hiding out in … let’s say Beaconsfield. Should we have a problem with the idea that for the next few days there was going to be blanket electronic surveillance on every message or metadatum flowing in and out of Beaconsfield? Would I get worked up about that? Not much.”

    And that is the heart of the problem. Even this guy condones it. Mr. Tom Stoppard, it is an all or nothing proposition, and you can’t be just a little pregnant.

    • Garysco, I’ve been mulling this over since I first read it. I can’t find a single point he makes I’d agree with. He swallowed the blue pill and asked for seconds. Of course a Brit always thinks they somehow need govt. and plenty of it. His example of a “druglord” is enough to stop you in your tracks. What is a ‘druglord’, how high up the chain do you need to be to achieve godlike status? And if you wholesale does that somehow make you more deserving of being caught? And at what level does that kick in? He goes on to say “thousands” of crimes have been prevented with cameras. How does he know this? I’d much rather have the threat of a terrorist who might do me harm than knowing big brother is watching me 24/7. Yep, as you said, there is no being a little bit pregnant.


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