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Can We Avoid a Surveillance State Dystopia?
Ramez Naam   Mar 18, 2014   Ethical Technology  

Yes. Yes we can. The last year has brought with it the revelations of massive government-run domestic spying machineries in the US and UK. On the horizon is more technology that will make it even easier for governments to monitor and track everything that citizens do. Yet I'm convinced that, if we're sufficiently motivated and sufficiently clever, the future can be one of more freedom rather than less.

(This article was originally published at:

I saw this tweet not so long ago:

​It's quite droll. In fact, though, we've been promised an oppressive state that used media technologies to control the populace for far longer than that. George Orwell published 1984 in 1948. One of the central features of that novel was the use of media and surveillance technologies to control the populace. Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. And while Brave New World is remembered more for predicting government-controlled biological engineering of the masses, it also features government surveillance, media manipulation, and thought control.

This is an old idea. Yet somehow, today, in most of the world, governments have dramatically less control over their people than they did when Huxley and Orwell wrote those words. Indeed, the average person on Earth is more free today, in 2014, than he or she would have been in the actual year 1984. The arc of history has bent towards more freedom.

That is not to say it's been perfect. The confluence of 9/11 and the availability of new technology has rolled back freedoms in the US, and much of that has infected the UK as well, often in worse ways than the US. This recent wave needs to be actively combated, and our freedoms won back. (This is, indeed, one of the motivators behind the War-on-Terror extrapolations in my near future science fiction.)

There are two separate tools in our arsenal to win back and extend our freedoms. And both are fronts that need to be pushed on. One is the nature of technology itself, and its tendency to grow cheaper and spread into more hands. The other is democracy.

In my friend Clive Thompson's wonderful book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, he talks about one of the big influences on Orwell's thinking in writing 1984: Joseph Stalin's manipulation of history.

Over the course of his rule of the USSR, Stalin purged millions of people. Among them were important Soviet officials who appeared in pictures with him. Stalin, not content with merely executing his former friends and underlings, wanted them out of history. So he employed a staff of photo editors who painstakingly retouched photographs to simply remove any evidence that these men (and occasionally women) had ever existed. You can see this in the example of his former chief inquisitor Nikolai Yezhov.

Or look at the set of pictures below. The first picture shows Stalin with Nikolai Antipov, Sergey Kirov, and Nikolay Shvernik. Then, one by one, as the men fall out of favor (and as they're killed) Stalin has them removed from the photograph, until only he is in it.

This terrified Orwell. If a dictator can do this, he or she can re-write history. He could even re-write the present. He could lie to the people with impunity.

What Clive Thompson points out is that something very different has happened. It's actually become harder for governments to lie to the people, instead of easier.

In 2008, the media arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard announced a successful launch of four Shahab-3 long-range missiles at the same time. These are missiles that can potentially take nuclear warheads, so this was considered a big deal. The announcement came with a photo of the launch.

The story and the image were carried by the Associated Press and ran on the front page of the New York Times, the LA Times, etc..

But within hours, people looking at the photo started to notice some oddities. Patterns of thrust and smoke in the photo seemed to repeat. It's not something I ever would have noticed. But if you're skilled with photoshop, perhaps you would have. The photo had been doctored.

And indeed, after all media sources had come to the conclusion that the photo had been doctored and that very likely only three missiles had been launched, an anonymous source provided a new photo. In this photo, there's a fourth missile launcher, siting there, apparently meant to launch its missile, but with a dud.

That, of course, led to some hilarious Photoshop mockery of the Iranian pictures.

What's happened here is that the technology isn't just in the hands of the state, or the super rich. Nor are the skills. Technology gets cheap, fast. At least digital technology does. And as it gets cheap, it gets into more and more hands. It brings additional skills and capabilities to a wider and wider set of people. And that in turn builds a defense against digital oppression by the state.

So let's bring it back to today. There are three trends in digital technology that are relevant to the current issues with state surveillance and state overreach.

1) Cheap Cameras - Sousveillance
David Brin is arguably the most vocal proponent of 'sousveillance', the people monitoring the authorities as the ultimate tool to prevent oppression. I don't see it as the whole of the solution. (I'm not willing to give up on privacy protection.) But it's a vital part of the solution.

And it has never been easier to monitor the authorities, particularly to monitor the police in their interactions with every day people. That, in turn, is a tremendously powerful tool against police abuse of power, something which happens all too often.

In the United States, you have the right to record both audio and video of on-duty police officers. Your recordings are protected from seizure by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In the UK, it's also fully legal to record on-duty police, and the Metropolitan Police have issued clear guidance that police can't interfere with such filming.

That doesn't mean that police officers won't try. In a case recently in Omaha, Nebraska, police officers brutalized a man, and then destroyed two cell phone cameras held by his brothers that recorded the interactions.

But what happened next was telling. Cameras are now so ubiquitous that it turns out the neighbor across the street, who the officers couldn't see, was also recording the interaction. That third video, which later surfaced, has led to the firing of four of those officers, criminal charges being filed against two of them, and civil charges against the city and 32 officers.

That's today. Cameras will just become more ubiquitous, smaller, harder to detect, with more data storage, meaning that they can be left recording for longer and longer periods of time. We're used to thinking of that as a threat against our privacy. But the technology, when expensive benefits the big players. The technology getting cheaper becomes distributed, benefiting the citizenry.

2) Crypto and Anonymity Blunt Surveillance Tools
One of the most interesting things in all of the many documents released of those taken by Edward Snowden was the revelation that the NSA had extremely little success penetrating Tor, a popular online anonymity system. An NSA presentation started with the slide below, proclaiming that, from their perspective, "Tor Stinks".

Now, I want to immediately put some caveats around this. What Tor does is encrypt and anonymize the traffic from point A to point B. What the NSA has never succeeded in doing is breaking any substantial amount of Tor traffic. The NSA still has many other tools up its sleeve. If it knows that John Q. Smith at 101 Willow Lane is a target, it has many potential ways to break into Mr. Smith's computer. And if, remarkably, Mr. Smith has completely secured his computer (including against zero-day vulnerabilities that the NSA purchases and which no one else has heard of), there's always the possibility that FBI or local police officers could simply enter the home on a 'sneak-and-peek' warrant. If one is already a suspect or a target, with a known location, anonymity is of only so much value.

But for everyone who is not yet a target, a tool such as Tor provides significant value. And we can see this by the numbers. Roughly 3 million people use Tor daily. The NSA documents suggest that they've never managed to de-anonymize more than a few handfuls of Tor accounts in a given a day. And even that, as the slide above shows, happens with manual analysis, not via automated methods.

I bring this up because there's a kind of privacy fatalism that I see in some corners, an attitude (explicit in the case of David Brin, of whom I'm both a fan and a friend) that we won't ever be able to stop government from gleaning the data it wants, so why try?

Yet security expert Bruce Schneier, who has seen the Snowden docs, says that encryption works, and offers a list of things you can do to secure your data. Edward Snowden also has said that encryption works.

For someone already under specific investigation, it's likely that very little will be effective. But what most of us fear, I think, is the widening dragnet that, with no real suspicion, can suck up large amounts of data about us. And the evidence is that encryption and anonymity tools are effective against the dragnet.

3) Information is Ever More Viral
Charlie wrote a great piece about the sociological problem facing intelligence agencies a while back. For Gen Y employees with greater focus on autonomy and less focus on organizational loyalty, leaking may come more easily.

And because one leaker out of an organization of tens of thousands can blow the lid off of behavior that (s)he finds unethical, leaking is a kind ofasymmetric threat to those organizations. It's extremely difficult to combat. Any modern intelligence organization - in fact, any modernorganization of any sort has to operate on the assumption that everything it does will one day become known.

That wasn't always true. And that, I think, has a tremendous potential to shift the landscape.

That's multiplied in impact by other qualities of information. Information is viral. It only takes one copy of it getting out to spread a contagion.

A generation ago, a leak the size of Snowden's would have been incredibly difficult. It would have been nearly impossible for him to search through millions of files to find the relevant documents, let alone copy and gather them without anyone being suspicious, let alone make his way out of the building with tens or hundreds of thousands (or evens millions) of pages of paper without being detected.

Could you even fly with that much paper on a commercial flight?

Now it's just data.

A generation ago, a government might have hoped to be able to find all the copies of the files and burn them. The process of making new copies would have been long and time consuming, slowing it down.

Now we see the spectacle of Guardian staff being forced to destroy their hard drives at the orders of the UK Prime Minister, and it may make you laugh or cry or shake your fist (or none of those) but at the end you know that it's a complete farce. That action accomplished nothing. The probability that the NSA or GCHQ ever finds and destroys all copies of the Snowden files is essentially zero.

For all that trends in technology point in several anti-authoritarian directions, they also point in authoritarian ones. We still see more cameras in public places. The movement of all vehicle license plates are near to being tracked. Phone calls, emails, text messages, web browsing sessions, GPS data, and so on are all being captured to some degree or another. Journalists are being harassed. Many of the technology directions I just pointed to could be squelched by aggressive governments as well.

We need legal changes to protect the rights of journalists (defined as broadly as possible) to do their work, the rights of everyone to speak out. We need legal changes to curtail the amount of information law enforcement and intelligence agencies can access prior to demonstrated probable cause and being issued a specific warrant for a specific person, number, or account. We need legal changes to force more transparency on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and much more accountability when they overstep, including criminal sanctions for members of those organizations who act egregiously.

I'm not one of those who thinks we should abolish intelligence agencies. Far from it. They serve a valuable purpose. But they should be refocused on that purpose. The same is true of law enforcement. Police serve a vital role in society. Yet all power must be held in check.

Is it possible for us to actually act, as citizens in democracies, to curtail the power of intelligence and police agencies?

We've done it before.

In the 1960s, the abuses of the FBI were many, many times worse than what we've seen from NSA or GCHQ today. Consider just one example. J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, had a personal dislike for Martin Luther King and for the Civil Rights movement. With the blessing of JFK (who was worried about King's Communist connections), Hoover had King's hotel rooms bugged by FBI agents.

In so doing, Hoover turned up evidence that Martin Luther King was having an affair. Seeing his chance, he tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide.

Agents under Hoover sent King an anonymous letter, which included these excerpts:

King, look into your heart. You know you are a complete fraud and a great liability to all of us Negroes. White people in this country have enough frauds of their own but I am sure they don't have one at this time anywhere near your equal. You are no clergyman and you know it. I repeat you are a colossal fraud and an evil, vicious one at that. You could not believe in God... Clearly you don't believe in any personal moral principles.

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

Even reading this again now I'm still shocked by it. The Director of the FBI, with the assistance of his agents, tried to blackmail the leader of the US Civil Rights Movement into suicide. And that's just one of the many things Hoover did in his day.

To me, the Hoover FBI is the best case of why we need to staunch the NSA's power. Because a future Hoover wouldn't need to have agents place physical bugs in dozens of hotel rooms around the country. He'd only need to issue a few database queries to find all the evidence he wanted. And that is too much power too centralized.

But it's also telling what happened afterwards. In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Hoover stint at the FBI, the US Senate saw theChurch Committee, which created what is now known as FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which for the next 26 years severely constrained domestic surveillance in the United States.

It's possible. It took years and multiple major scandals to build the political will for it. But we did it once.

The FISA act was effectively gutted by 9/11, and then gutted again in law by the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Most people respond to concrete events much more than to abstractions. The shock of 9/11 had a huge emotional effect that shoved the pendulum of liberty vs. state control far off to one side. Yet that emotional blow is clearly receding, or we wouldn't see the public response to the NSA revelations that we have. Every year that goes by without another 9/11, people find intrusions into their privacy more onerous.

I agree with the Electronic Frontier Foundation that what we need in the US is a new Church Committee. Something similar is needed in the UK.

For now, more is happening on the legal front than most people realize: President Obama has proposed a set of reforms, though I find these inadequate.Multiple alternative NSA reform bills are in committee in the US Congress, the author of the Patriot Act has stated publicly that the NSA abused it, the phone-spying provisions of the Patriot Act expire in 2015 if they're not actively renewed,a different Senator has sued the President and the heads of several intelligence agencies over NSA spying, and pledges to take it to the Supreme Court, and a Federal Judge has ruled much of the domestic spying program unconstitutional, setting up a higher court ruling, also possibly taking it to the Supreme Court.

More than half of Americans now believe the NSA has gone too far. That political swing is a direct result of the technological trends that made Snowden's massive leak possible, and thus enabled the week-by-week drumbeat of news that kept it on people's minds. Politics and technology interact and feed back on each other.

Will that be enough to drive change? We'll almost certainly get some change. The question is how much. I don't expect to get everything I'd like, not right away, but political change takes time. The pendulum that swung hard away from privacy with 9/11 now appears to be swinging back.

And every organization in the world must now be on notice - everything it does may eventually become known. If the people don't like it, they'll overturn it.


This'll be my last post here for the foreseeable future. I have to go off and finish the third Nexus novel to get it to my editor. It's been a pleasure. I was a fan of Charlie's for quite a long time before ever being a sci-fi writer myself, so it's an honor to be trusted with his blog. Thanks to Charlie, and thanks to all of you for tuning in.

And if you've enjoyed any of this, feel free to check out my novels Nexus andCrux, which deal with the technology to link minds together, and what happens when that technology is suppressed in a future version of the War-on-Terror / War-on-Drugs. Or just follow me on twitter @ramez.

Ramez Naam, a Fellow of the IEET, is a computer scientist and the author of four books, including the sci-fi thriller Nexus and the nonfiction More than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement and The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet.  He writes at


Naam is one of the few people I’ve read who can keep hold of all of the relevant facts without distortion and NOT end up being a pessimist. Loved it.

Had the chance to listen to Snowden at SXSW today, totally worth the hour, for those following this topic, covering many of the grounds Naam discussed above.

Wonderful article Mr. Naam! And to all those who enjoyed this article, his books are even better. Thank you very much Mr. Naam!

Two articles that caught my attention today..

Biometrics in smartphones need more control - ex-GCHQ boss

“The former boss of government communications agency GCHQ has warned over the use of biometric data in mobile phones and devices.

Sir John Adye said he had security concerns over methods like fingerprint recognition used in Apple’s iPhone 6 and other devices to check identity.

“I don’t know what happens to my personal data when I use it on a smartphone,” he told MPs.”

“If you go to an ATM and put in your credit or debit card, that system is supervised by the bank in some way,” he said in evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is examining the use of biometric technology.

“But when you’re using your smartphone… there’s no physical supervision of the system.”

“You need to design security methods… which are going to be strong to protect the interests of the individual who is using the phone and the relying party at the other end… the bank or whoever it is, who is providing a service to them.”


Twitter scanning users’ other apps to help deliver ‘tailored content’

“Twitter’s moves to insert tweets into people’s timelines from accounts they don’t follow have been controversial enough, but now it has emerged that the company is collecting data on their other smartphone apps to help do it.

“To help build a more personal Twitter experience for you, we are collecting and occasionally updating the list of apps installed on your mobile device so we can deliver tailored content that you might be interested in,” explained Twitter.”



“Want to gain entry to your office, get on a bus, or perhaps buy a sandwich? We’re all getting used to swiping a card to do all these things. But at Epicenter, a new hi-tech office block in Sweden, they are trying a different approach - a chip under the skin.

Felicio de Costa, whose company is one of the tenants, arrives at the front door and holds his hand against it to gain entry. Inside he does the same thing to get into the office space he rents, and he can also wave his hand to operate the photocopier.

That’s all because he has a tiny RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip, about the size of a grain of rice, implanted in his hand. Soon, others among the 700 people expected to occupy the complex will also be offered the chance to be chipped. Along with access to doors and photocopiers, they’re promised further services in the longer run, including the ability to pay in the cafe with a touch of a hand.”




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