inessential by Brent Simmons

The Cassandra Version

Rene Ritchie tweeted:

It’s impossible for me to put into words how horrific the revelations about privacy violations have been this year.

If the Internet Age began in 1995 or so, then the Surveillance Age began in 2001. We didn’t feel the weight of it until 2013. But the run-up to now wasn’t just the NSA: it was also Twitter, Facebook, and Google wanting to know where you are, where you were, where you’re going — and who your friends are and what you’re thinking and talking about.

(Public/private partnerships are usually willing — see the defense and prison industries, and RSA — but whether they’re willing or not doesn’t really matter.)

* * *

If you wanted to create a modern total state you might concentrate on 1) constant war and preparation for war, 2) imprisonment of absurd numbers of young men, and 3) learning everything you can about what everybody everywhere is saying, doing, and thinking.

(For good measure you might also work to eliminate the ability of workers to organize and earn a living wage. You might block immigration reform — and demonize people from other countries — in order for corporations to retain super-cheap labor from people who can’t object. You might curtail voting rights, particularly for the less-than-privileged.)

The third thing — total surveillance — used to be difficult. Now it’s a piece of cake.

* * *

One way of looking at Google Glass: now the surveillance state can see through your eyes. Even when you blink.

* * *

The difference between the Internet Age and the Surveillance Age is that in the Internet Age you could choose what you shared. (Mostly.) Now all that is left is the illusion of choice.

I want to say that we gave it all away for cat pictures — because it feels like a mean thing to say, and thinking about this puts me in a mean mood. But that’s reductive and unfair.

Instead, we quite rightly love what the internet makes possible. We love when our calendars sync, we love having our photos in the cloud, and, most of all, we love talking with our friends.

And when I’m not writing blog posts I’m working on cloud software to sync your personal notes. I love this stuff too, same as everybody else.

If I believed that the internet has been subsumed by the surveillance state and there is no hope of turning it back, I’d have to check out of the internet. If I believed that the internet as a force for good has been entirely smothered by the fog of surveillance, I’d quit.

But I don’t believe that.

I think it’s immoral to believe that, because it means giving up when the stakes are high.

* * *

Here’s why I don’t believe it:

Fuck these guys.

I’ve spent the last ten years of my life trying to keep Google’s users safe and secure from the many diverse threats Google faces… But after spending all that time helping in my tiny way to protect Google — one of the greatest things to arise from the internet — seeing this, well, it’s just a little like coming home from War with Sauron, destroying the One Ring, only to discover the NSA is on the front porch of the Shire chopping down the Party Tree and outsourcing all the hobbit farmers with half-orcs and whips.

That was a Google engineer angry over the NSA’s interception of Google traffic.

I’m not one of those people who suggest there are technological solutions to every problem. But the internet is technology, and it can adapt to new threats by using new technology.

But at the core it’s a people problem. People have to care enough to fight back. Google’s motto, its exhortation against evil, hasn’t changed — but in my mind Google is now the Fuck these guys company.

And I love that. It gives me hope.

(Obviously this isn’t the only bright light in the fight against surveillance. You can find plenty more. And it’s imperfect, because Google itself still knows way too much. But I accept that there is and always will be messiness. One step at a time.)

* * *

Carl Sandburg:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

My hope — my expectation, even — for 2014 is that the fog starts to lift.

* * *

As much as I like using the fog metaphor, the thing about surveillance is that there is no actual fog. You can’t see it. It’s everywhere and gets in everything, and it still looks like a sunny day on the internet.

But still.