Civil Liberties

Total Surveillance May Be Malevolent, But It's Definitely Creepy


Ildar Sagdejev

In the wake of the Boston bombing, all-pervasive surveillance has become very popular. A New York Times/CBS News Poll finds 78 percent support for putting America under the glass eye. Officials all over the country are scurrying to do just that. But as the ACLU points out, the surveillance state has a growing ability to gather massive quantities of data about all our movements and communications, but a limited ability to process much of it. That promises to create a situation in which the details of our lives are available to be perused by curious or even malicious officials, but also one in which information about criminals and terrorists is more likely to be summoned up after they've done their worst than it is to be used to head off vicious acts.

Writes Jay Stanley for the ACLU:

When surveillance takes place on such a mass scale, it is impossible to pay close attention to everything. Even with automated electronic systems used for the eavesdropping, attempting to flag certain conversations or certain subjects as "suspicious" for human analysts, the volume of false positives is always going to dwarf real alarms. The world is just too full of too enormous a variety of conversations for such monitoring to be very precise.

The fact that the surveillance state will likely discover after a crime or attack that it has unprocessed information about the guilty parties will likely create a cycle of "ever greater surveillance, as the government vainly tries to sharpen its ability to separate true threats from the ocean of false positives by adding more data points to its equations," Stanley warns. Inevitably, this means that innocent people will come under the microscope.

Stanley dwells on deliberate, systematic violations of personal privacy by a surveillance state determined to accomplish the impossible task of gathering and analyzing as much data as it can collect. But the biggest threat to privacy may well come from incidental and inevitable abuses of such data by petty officials who have access to information about … everybody. In recent months, scandals have erupted over government agencies accessing databases for personal reasons in Minnesota — sometimes just to look up personal details about attractive women — and Florida, where police used the information to harass a fellow officer who'd arrested one of their own. IRS agents have used their agency's database to file fraudulent returns, and to snoop on celebrities and neighbors.

The total surveillance state has a real potential to be malevolent, but it's already well on its way to allowing petty officials to be incredibly creepy.