I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard

Imagining totalitarianism

2013-06-21 by Nick S., tagged as government, privacy

The Conversation (amongst others) last week had plenty to say about "PRISM", with all of Philip Branch, Sean Rintel, Alan Woodward, Grant Blank, and Ashlin Lee and Peta Cook having something to say about the US National Security Agency's alleged programme to collect information from the servers of US Internet companies.

I found it curious that the criticisms levelled at this kind of surveillance are largely (though not completely) theoretical, in the sense that they don't much discuss actual instances of people suffering at the hands of such systems. A mention or two of Watergate seems to be about it, and that happened forty years ago.

Now, what constitutes "suffering" may be a matter of opinion. Does it do someone harm to be embarrassed? To be in the NSA's files? To be judged by information collected by Google and Facebook? And perhaps it's hard to find people suffering because such systems haven't been widely used in Western countries (though Lee and Cook's contribution suggests otherwise).

The orthodox view amongst those who write most about privacy seems to be that the collection of data is harmful in and of itself. The classical view amongst technologists, in particular, is that privacy consists of never telling anyone anything, and hence their fascination with technology like Tor and Bitcoin. It certainly seems sinister enough to imagine that there's some organisation watching one's every online move. After all, what good could such an organisation possibly do for the person being watched?

The answer is that, whatever conspiracy theorists might like to imagine, I don't think there are any organisations that collect data simply for the sake of it. Google, Facebook and the rest collect data in part to serve the immediate needs of their users and in part to meet their own business needs. The NSA and similar organisations collect data to serve what they perceive to be the public interest. To get worked up about the mere collection of data is to miss the point: the real question concerns the purpose the data is used for, and whether or not the benefits of this purpose outweigh the costs.

Making simple allusions to totalitarian states and Orwell doesn't answer this question. The problem with totalitarian dictators isn't so much that they spy on their citizens, it's that they persecute citizens who hold views disagreeable to the dictator. Indeed, any organisation that simply collected data for its own sake would just be a corporate variant of the oddballs that appear on Collectors.