Back in 2003 I attended a talk by David Brin, at Worldcon here in Toronto. Brin had blurbed Starfish; to say I was favorably disposed towards the man would be an understatement. And yet I found myself increasingly skeptical as he spoke out in favor of ubiquitous surveillance: the “Transparent Society”, he called it, and It Was Good. The camera would point both ways, cops and politicians just as subject to our scrutiny as we were to theirs. People are primates, Brin reminded us; our leaders are Alphas. Trying to ban government surveillance would be like poking a silverback gorilla with a stick. “But just maybe,” he allowed, “they’ll let us look back.”
Dude, thought I, do you have the first fucking clue how silverbacks react to eye contact?
It wasn’t just a bad analogy. It wasn’t analogy at all; it was literal, and it was wrong. Alpha primates regard looking back as a challenge. Anyone who’s been beaten up for recording video of police beating people up knows this; anyone whose cellphone has been smashed, or returned with the SIM card mysteriously erased. Document animal abuse in any of the US states with so-called “Ag-gag” laws on their books and you’re not only breaking the law, you’re a “domestic terrorist”.
Chelsea Manning looked back; she’ll be in jail for decades. Edward Snowden looked back and has been running ever since. All he did to put that target on his back was confirm something most of us have suspected for years: those silverbacks are recording every move we make online. But try to look back and they’ll scream terrorism and national security, and leave an innocent person on the no-fly list for no better reason than to cover up a typo.
Look back? Don’t make me laugh.
I don’t know if Brin has since changed his stance (Larry Niven just coauthored a novel which accepts the reality of climate change, so I guess there’s hope for anybody). Either way, other SF writers seem willing to take up the chorus. About a decade back Robert Sawyer wrote an editorial for a right-wing Canadian magazine in which he lamented the bad rap that “Big Brothers” had got ever since Orwell. He waxed nostalgic— and, apparently, without irony— about how safe he’d felt as a child knowing that his big brother was watching over him from the next room (thus becoming an unwitting case-in-point for Orwell’s arguments about the use of language as a tool of cognitive manipulation). Just a few years ago, up-and-comer Madeline Ashby built her Master’s thesis around a misty-eyed love letter to surveillance at border crossings.
But it’s not a transparent society unless light passes through the glass both ways. The light doesn’t do that.
Can we stop them from watching us, at least? Stay away from LinkedIn or facebook, keep your private information local and offline?
Sure. For a while, at least. Of course, you may have to kiss ebooks goodbye. Amazon reserves the right to reach down into your Kindle and wipe it clean any time it feels the urge (they did it a few years back— to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, ironically). You’ll have to do without graphics and multimedia and spreadsheets and word processing, too: both Adobe and Microsoft are phasing out local software in favor of Cloud-based “subscription” models. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for chrissakes— an organization that really should know better— has recently switched to a “browser-based” journal feed that can’t be accessed offline. (And what happens if, for example, you’re out in the field doing, you know, science, and don’t have internet access? “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to download the issue on your computer,” Member Services told me, before passing on her Best Regards. “You’ll have to have internet access to view it.” Which is why I quit the AAAS, after over twenty years of membership.)
We used to own our books, our magazines, the games we played. Now we can only rent them. Business models and government paranoia both rely on stripping us naked online; but if we stay offline, we’re deaf dumb and blind. It doesn’t matter that nobody’s pretending the Cloud is anywhere close to secure. The spooks and the used-car salesmen are hell-bent on forcing us onto it anyway. I’ve lost track of the number of articles I’ve read— by such presumably progressive outlets as Wired, even— lamenting the lack of effective online security, only to throw up their hands and admit But of course we’re not going to retreat from the Cloud— we live there now. It’s as though those most cognizant of the dangers we face have also been charged with assuring us that there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just give up and invite the NSA into our bathrooms. (Or even worse, embrace the cameras. Have you seen that Coke ad cobbled together from bits of faux-security-camera footage? A dozen “private” moments between people with no idea they’re on camera, served up to sell fizzy suger-water as though our hearts should be warmed by displays of universal surveillance. Orwell— brought to you by Hallmark.)
You all know this as well as I do, of course. I’m only about the millionth blogger to whinge about these things. So why do I feel like a voice in the wilderness when I wonder: why aren’t we retreating from the cloud, exactly? What’s so absurd about storing your life on a USB key or a hard drive, rather than handing it over to some amorphous webcorp that whispers sweet nothings about safe secrets and unbreakable encryption into your ear, only to roll over and surrender your most private details the first time some dead-eyed spook in a trench coat comes calling?
Remember the premise of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica: that the only way to win against high-tech opponents is to go retro, revert to a time when no computer was networked, when you ran starships by pulling levers and cranking valves. It was an exquisite narrative rationale for the anachronistic vibe endemic to everything from Alien to Firefly to Star Wars, that peeling-paint aesthetic that resonates in the gut even though it made no real sense until Moore gave it context.
Maybe now it’s more than rationale. Maybe now it’s a strategy. Because now we know that the NSA has back doors installed into every edition of Windows from Xp on up— but not into dusty old Win-95. And while giving up online access entirely is a bridge too far for most of us, there’s no reason we can’t keep our most private stuff on a standalone machine without network access. Even if we don’t ditch facebook entirely (and we should, you know— really, we should), there’s no reason we can’t tell it to fuck off when it keeps nagging us to tell it where we went to school, or if we want to be friends with this K. Homolka character. (And you certainly don’t want to use a real picture of yourself for your facebook header; they’re gearing up to use those as biometric baselines to ID as many other pictures of you as they can find. If they haven’t started already.)
Bruce Schneier points out that if the spooks want you badly enough, they’ll get you. Even if you stay off the net entirely, they can always sit in a van down the street and bounce a laser off your bedrooom window to hear your pillow talk— but of course, that would be too much bother for all but the most high-value targets. Along the same lines, Edward Snowden recently advocated making surveillance “too expensive” to perform with a driftnet; force them to use a longline, to focus their resources on specific targets rather than treating everyone on the planet as a potential suspect on general principles. The only reason they target all of us is because we’re all so damn easy to target, you see. They don’t seriously suspect you or I of anything but impotent rage, but they’ll scoop up everything on everybody as long as it’s cheap and easy to do so. That’s why the Internet is every spook’s best friend. It takes time and effort to install a keystroke logger on someone’s home machine; even more to infect the thumb drive that might get plugged into a non-networked device somewhere down the line. Most of us are welcome to keep whatever privacy can’t be stripped away with a whisper and a search algorithm.
That’s hardly an ethical stance, though. It’s pure cost/benefit. Wouldn’t it be nice for them if it wasn’t so hard to scoop up everything, if there were no TOR or PGP encryption or— hey, while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be nice if all data storage was Cloud-based? Wouldn’t it be nice if nobody could write a manifesto without using Google Docs or Microsoft’s subscription service, wouldn’t it be nice if somehow, local storage devices could get smaller and smaller over time— who needs a big clunky desktop with a big clunky hard drive when you can have a tablet instead, an appliance that outsources its memory to the ether? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could weed out the luddites and malcontents who refuse to face reality and get with the program?
When I explain to someone why I’m not on twitter, they generally look at me like I’m some old fart yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. At the moment, refusal to join social networks is merely regarded as quaint and old-fashioned— but social norms change over time. My attitude is already a deal-breaker in some contexts; some literary agents refuse to represent you unless you’re an active Twit. Before too long, my attitude might graduate from merely curmudgeonly to gauche; later still, from gauche to downright suspicious. What’s that guy afraid of, anyway? Why would he be so worried if he didn’t have something to hide?
It’s no secret that it’s mainly us old folks who are raising the ruckus about privacy. All the twentysomething thumbwirers out there grew up with the notion of trading personal data for entertainment. These kids don’t just lack an expectation of privacy, they may even lack a functional definition of the stuff…
We all know the only people who go on about privacy issues are the ones who are up to no good…
Science fiction writers are suppose to go beyond predicting the automobile; we’re supposed to take the next step and predict smog alerts. So here’s a smog alert for you:
How long before local offline storage becomes either widely unavailable, or simply illegal?