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.

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  1. How long after we descend into near-total surveillance statehood do we foresee people deliberately creating false positives like peppering their conversations with terrierist keywords or leaving empty backpacks on street corners just to fuck with the Man?

    1. The strategy here in Chicago has been much simpler. Now instead of selling drugs on street corners, many of which have cameras, the kids do it in the alleys.

      Because alleys are super safe to begin with and shit.

      1. Maybe you should get your drugs delivered, Darling Nikki.

        1. Like I would get them from kids anyway.

      2. Sounds like your problem is with the drug laws, not the cameras (as is mine).

        Along with the drug deals, the violent crimes have probably moved from unavoidable street corners (optimal hunting grounds for muggers et al.) to alleys that only idiots would walk down.

    2. People are doing that now. I’ve seen email messages and websites with an appended list of keywords designed to fuck with Echelon/Carnivore/Stellar Wind and the various successor systems that may or may not be in place.

      I’m not sure if that’s the smartest thing these geeks have ever done, but what do I know.

  2. I was thinking about the Petraeus affair. He was an inner party member. He could literally have people killed. But one asshole cop brought him down.

    Maybe if our ruling class begins to see the panopitican state as a threat to them and their’s, they might dial it back a bit.

    It could happen.

    1. They can turn the telescreens off in federal buildings.

      1. I would think after Nixon they would be smart enough not to install them in the rooms where business actually gets done and decisions get made.

  3. 78 percent support for putting America under the glass eye

    Damnit, Loki was right!

    It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.

  4. Geez. You guys don’t seem to realize that crying wolf about cameras in public places is making libertarian complaints about actual liberty violations get ignored.

  5. People are so stupid. They want the government “out of the bedroom” but they’ll let them in to film it?

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