Veillance [Sur- and Sous-]

Damn, it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again. I discovered this because I started receiving drafts from old friends that used to do this kind of thing with me in grade school.  I’m too busy <- that’s a terrible excuse and nobody believes you. It’s too late for me to start, I think, so maybe I’ll spontaneously write a novel for December and then never show anybody but I’ll do it. You’ll see. While I’m complaining, the Tesla stock really dampened my mood the last day or so. Okay, that’s it. Sorry you wasted time reading that.

I realized that talking about contemporary technology isn’t necessarily UpWing. I meant to go further into the cost- and energy-extensive future that futurists argue those cars enable, but I only wrote about the state and immediate expectations of the industry. That’s what happens when you don’t respect your own deadlines (and are too stubborn to change your deadlines, evidently). I suppose any future that requires more energy than the current one is a sort of default UpWing future.

DownWing Greer thinks civilizational decline will take centuries. DownWing Spengler believes that technology (instead of science!) flourishes in the Civilization phase of a culture before everything hollows out. Neither of these really conflict with the idea that autonomous cars may seem inevitable in ten years.

I hope to also dig later into the more ecotechnic futures that keep humans confined to a lower-energy future while not being totally luddite about it. Those people also exist, although they’re not as fun/new to me as the caricature of the (often separate) politically reactionary, technoskeptic, or pessimistic crowds. While I’m at it, I guess I should caveat that political “progress” is not the same as technological “progress” and thus, arguably the political reactionaries are not necessarily DownWing. I will defend why I fit them in this way later.

Tomorrow I will get more concise in defining what about these various beliefs are Down- or UpWing, since I’m insisting on using it and I fear I’m coming off as a little incoherent.

Today, though, I wanted to post some more Facebook-based notes on Total Surveillance Societies.

*Veillance

There’s a real chance that I’ll have purchased a Google Glass to play with by the time this post is released. It is expensive, yes, but I think it’s a great toy to mess with (and I also worked out a deal to co-own it so that I don’t break the bank). But enough about that.

It’s creepy, I’m sure, to be at a bar and notice that that distinctive Glass frame. Some of my friends on the West Coast attest to that. We’re all being told to look out for Big Brother, and we generally give a pass on the rise of millions of Little Brothers/Sisters in the form of wearable/embedded computing. This post is on surveillance and sousveillance, compiled from my usual cluster of stored links and also from my own posts in a Facebook thread on the topic.

That necessary disclaimer: This blog isn’t necessarily about what I believe. I’m just entertaining some stuff.

 

Surveillance

(Sur+veillance “Watch from above”)

I won’t start with decrying the surveillance state because that’s been done and it’d probably bore me to type it. I won’t outline the surveillance state as it exists today for the same reason.

From Aeon magazine: “Life in the Fishbowl“, outlining some potential benefits of living in a surveillance state. A useful challenge because it’s easy to write an unconvincing vacation pamphlet for a total surveillance state, but not so easy to cleanly pass that Ideological Turing Test.

Maybe we should start preparing. And not just by wringing our hands or mounting attempts to defeat surveillance. For if there’s a chance that the panopticon is inevitable, we ought to do some hard thinking about its positive aspects. Cataloguing the downsides of mass surveillance is important, essential even. But we have a whole literature devoted to that. Instead, let’s explore its potential benefits. [more]

 

Some notes on an “enlightened” surveillance state and how its citizens might approach it (plagiarizing myself from a private discussion).

Policy-wise:

  • CCTV in the UK is an interesting early test-case. CCTV has overseen a modest but “statistically significant impact on crime” and the population has somewhat warmed to it. And their network isn’t particularly proactive yet. If/when we see a marked increase in effectiveness, I expect public opinion to carry along with it.
  • A good surveillance state would be mostly quiet. It’d be so deeply embedded that you wouldn’t notice it until you find yourself in a special case (considering a crime, witnessing a crime). The brunt of the surveillance state would probably disproportionately weigh on the disenfranchised poor. Socially and physically segregated, our day-to-day lives will continue on as scheduled. [related ideas: the modern submerged state]
  • A good surveillance state appears impersonal. The eyes looking down on you should not be human. “As President/Admin of the United States, I’m not sure I would permit personal tape reviews without a permit for security reasons (your whole life might be recorded but not accessible without some sort of legal process, perhaps.)” [counter: the inability of social structures to be “impersonal” – see “Paperwork Against the People“, which I linked to in Kludge (which I think I’ve now linked more than any of my other older posts)]
  • A good surveillance state is fragmented and loosely coupled. Some of the machines identifying you are corporate units, installed for your convenience, monitoring your purchases so that you can grab whatever you want and leave, or protecting your personal property universally. Other machines are strictly public security. All of the distinct systems might communicate on some level but the citizen doesn’t think of it all as life under a single all-seeing eye necessarily, in the same way that we [most of us] don’t see social networks and search engines as tools of the USA government’s intelligence apparatus today.
  • On Misrepresentation and Control: The best defense against surveillance might be sousveillance. You’d have more control over your history and your data if you had records of your own. Sophisticated citizens (er, or criminals) might create convincing cases of their innocence through contradictory records (especially plausible since I don’t imagine that the surveillance state is one tightly integrated network so much as a serious of different, perhaps partially-integrated networks). Seeing everything is not the same as comprehending everything. There will still be points of view.

Structurally:

  • Legalize/decriminalize a mass of actions. If all retail thefts can be recorded, and the thief recognized, complete the transaction for them, turning it into a purchase. OR if the property belongs to someone personally, alert the offended party to take legal action. If even rich people on yachts are caught doing shrooms, shrooms will probably be decriminalized for everyone.
  • Property damage can be marked definitively by the artifact announcing its own breaking and calling attention to itself. (Or a bystander calling the system’s attention to an unfolding situation).
  • Even if it doesn’t actually do anything, the ability for people to announce their distress to the system would be a useful idea. Also, abrupt and distressing bio signals could warrant some escalation (at that point the system could wait for a signal from the would-be victim or bystander).
  • Waiting for multiple confirmations may not work in fuzzy situations, but communication with third party humans and systems can try to converge on a highly likely bad situation


Sousveillance

(Sous+veillance “watch from below”)

Earlier in this post, I briefly mentioned Sousveillance as a potential counter to Surveillance [different link!] and a general force to be understood on its own terms.

Jamais Cascio on the Participatory Panopticon.

Soon — probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two — we’ll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

And we will be doing it to ourselves.

This won’t simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

I recommend the rest of the article, it’s from 2005 but it’s well thought-out, prescient, and applicable. Generally, the way one should hope that a person who calls themselves a futurist ought to write.

Much as Stuart Armstrong (in the Aeon link) compares his enlightened surveillance state to a small village [last paragraph], Cascio’s Participatory Panopticon analogues (to me) the “tyranny of cousins” of ancient human life (is that a Fukuyama quote?).

 

Adapting to the *Veillance Future

I tend to think that the decisions leading to this proposed future of extreme Veillance are not deliberative: no one needs to plan it because procedural, predictable decisions made by unrelated institutions will tend that way. We already see many independent actors acting opportunistically to hold onto more data than they can chew simply for the potential future value of having it. If the cost of owning 10 acres of land is the same as owning 20, why ever choose 10? The one [known and nearby] institution we know that is unrestricted by known laws and conventions (the covert/security arm of the United States) eats more information than it presumably knows what to do with, swallowing tons of hay looking for god-knows-what (okay, needles, sure.) The institutions that are restricted by ‘laws’ and ‘customer/user/constituent rapport’ regularly eat up their excess stores of goodwill by crawling right up to the creepy line and then (by their own lights) not crossing it. As the Aeon article claims, we can expect some variation of the Veillance state just by extrapolating current trends, and not even too far. The creepy line itself does shift.

But another thing I see a lot of in discussion is a lot of comparison to our evolving sense of privacy and security in the age of social media. Usually, this aspect of discussion takes a cynical tone. We overshare anyway, we are begging for it. Which is not a fruitful belief but it’s a common one- common probably because it allows for an air of knowingness while not actually asking for any action to be taken.

Views on Privacy and Security:

David Brin argues that “transparency will protect privacy”

And yes, transparency is also the trick to protecting privacy, if we empower citizens to notice when neighbors infringe upon it. Isn’t that how you enforce your own privacy in restaurants, where people leave each other alone, because those who stare or listen risk getting caught?

 

Stuart Armstrong, the Aeon article writer, follows up with another blog post about how to bring about a more enlightened, “positive” surveillance.

Again, that wasn’t the point of the article. But it’s a fair criticism – what can we do today to make a better surveillance outcomes more likely? Since I didn’t have space to go through that in my article, here are a few suggestions. [this is a redacted quote- view the complete article here].

  • Put no trust in privacy laws. […] f you can’t trust the government not to spy on us, why would we trust them to enforce these laws for our own benefit?
  • The problem is that so much can be deduced from so little. A few GPS coordinates or just checking your wi-fi signal is enough to figure out who you are and where you live. Even if you practice perfect security (which you don’t), family members and friends will compromise this (even cybercriminals can’t protect their own privacy!) It takes very little information to hurt you (an insurance company can increase your fees based on the weakest of rumous, target can figure out if you’re pregnant) but a lot to help you (if you had a heart condition, your doctor would want detailed recording of your last few days or weeks). Algorithms and narrow AI will be continually improving the ability of organisations to figure things out about people.
  • So instead of controlling your information, focus on knowing how it’s being used. Unlike preventing the (mis)use of your information, accessing it and recording its use is a much more achievable goal. Websites track traffic; knowing who and what is reading your info should be feasible. Especially in the context of general mass surveillance, knowing who knows about you should be doable. And abuses will thus be easier to detect than they are now – if your insurance company is using your private information illegally, you can scream at them. And then sue them.
  • Film everything the police does […] Lobby to increase this surveillance, and to allow the passerbys to record police actions. If they’re not doing anything wrong, they have nothing to fear.
  • Record everything you do. […]Your own recording at least prevents [pthers] from distorting the picture too much.
  • Push for freedom of information acts as much as possible. This is a no-brainer, but it’s important to keep up the pressure. In a mass surveillance society, the police and government will have all the tools they need to fight crime; they will have little need for secrecy as well, so don’t let them have it. To pick an extreme example: if we spy on everyone and every gram of uranium in the world, then there’s no need to keep the plans of the atomic bomb a secret, as no-one will be able to discreetly build one. That may excessive, but there are certainly low-level government and corporate secrets than have no reason to remain secret.
  • Fight to repeal the war on drugs. We need to cut down on the number of crimes on the books (since every crime could get caught) and this seems the natural place to start.
  • Demand consistent enforcement of laws. If society can’t bear consistent enforcement of certain laws, then those laws have no reason to be. Allow private filming of criminal activities, and prosecute based on this evidence.
  • Put almost all recordings online. Once they’re online, its very hard for powerful organisations to take them down. If we are to get the peace dividends of surveillance, then we’ll have to accept countries spying more openly on each other anyway.
  • Bring cameras into boardrooms and increase shareholder rights. Politicians are quite well tracked by the media, but corporate powers are very anonymous. Change this balance of power by requiring more disclosure and surveillance in the corporate world.
  • Diversify and privatise surveillance capabilities. The Occupy Wall Street copter shows the way: have more organisations with divergent goals and surveillance capabilities. This is another place where privacy laws are pernicious: they’d justify turning off this sort of private small-scale sousveillance.
  • Watch the governments and corporations like hawks. The big risk is surveillance-enabled totalitarianism. As far as I can tell, no democratic government has gone totalitarian through mass surveillance (indeed, democratic governments going totalitarian is very rare – the reverse is much more common). But there’s always that risk, so keeping an eye on them as much as possible will be vital.
  • Change the culture to allow more tolerance. This is a tall order (any cultural change is), but if we don’t want to be driven to mindless conformity, we’re going to have to develop tolerance for each other’s eccentricities and foibles and perversions.