I would use this Ring…

In yesterday’s post about the encryption controversy, I wrote:

My own feeling is that, death-by-government having had a vastly higher body count over the past century or so than even the bloodiest wars (and astronomically higher than any act of terrorism), we should choose to protect our privacy. Just in case.

A commenter argued for the government’s side, saying:

If you exclude the outliers, the toll falls dramatically.

My response in the comment-thread was that I found it hard to “exclude” the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. But there is more I ought to have said.

In a post from 2012 I wrote:

We like to think that we are much freer, in the modern liberal West, than our forebears were under the monarchies, autocracies, and dictatorships of the past. But the truth is that even under the most capricious and unenlightened despots, the lives of ordinary subjects long ago were rarely if ever affected directly by the sovereign, who lived in some far-off keep and was entirely unable to monitor or control the day-to-day activities of his people. But the advent of modern communication and transportation in the twentieth century, followed by electronic-record-keeping of financial transactions and other interactions, made possible a far greater degree of interference by the government in the minutiae of everyday life — and the development in the twenty-first century of small, ubiquitous sensors, connected in real time to intelligent and adaptive monitoring systems, will carry this trend to its logical endpoint: enabling the continuous monitoring of everything any of us does, anywhere, anytime.

If a government can become malevolent — and historical counterexamples would be a far shorter list than examples — then what hope is there for its people? Only resistance, and resistance, to be effective, must be organized. To be organized, in turn, requires communication and secrecy. This has been difficult enough in earlier times, when the omniscience of the sovereign was limited by distance and scale — and even so, sufficient surveillance was possible as to enable the great totalitarianisms of the last century to crush dissent for decades. (Some still do.) What, then, would be the power of a malevolent government sitting at the focus of a continent-sized Panopticon?

We carry in our pockets, nowadays, extraordinary devices. With them we send our mail, make telephone calls, read the news, watch movies and TV, listen to music, look up information, buy consumer products, and take photographs of our ourselves, our friends, and our surroundings. These devices have microphones that listen, and cameras that watch. They are aware of our location, and of the history of our movements. They can tell if we are moving, or sitting still. When we speak, they hear. When we hold them in our hands, they see what we see. And all of them are connected, unless we switch them off (which we never do, because who knows what we might miss?), to a great centralized electronic network.

In other words, we are bugged. (Happily, willingly, enthusiastically bugged, but bugged nonetheless.) If it were 1970, and you found that someone had planted a surveillance device in your home, how would you have reacted? Now, however, we line up for the latest model. We do so because it seems like a good deal: we expose ourselves to the possibility of surveillance because we get a lot in return, and because we trust in the benevolence of the government and the protection of the law.

Now think about the potential power that such a Panopticon — wholly unprecedented in the history of the world — would grant to a sovereign who wished to use it, not in a carefully limited way for the enforcement of the law, but for the consolidation and preservation of its own sovereignty. Is that not a fearsome temptation? Do you trust that those who wield political power over you will always resist it?

Finally, our commenter wrote:

Apple should relinquish the codes, given the omnipresent issue of Islamic terrorism and the gravity of the situation.

So this is the future we choose? Perhaps there are other things we might do (and should already have done, had we any sense) to keep Islam at bay — things that we won’t do if we think we can solve the problem by simply activating the Panopticon, and going back to sleep.


  1. W Smith says

    > To be organised, in turn, requires communication and secrecy.

    Communication, yes. Freenet, Tor, Twister etc offer hope that anonymous and non-censorable communication is possible over the public Internet (I would not trust Telegram). An organisation could coalesce in such a medium if like-minded individuals can find each other there.

    Secrecy, I’m not so sure. There is no way to recruit over the Internet without the risk that your new Winston Smith is an enemy, just as he must take the risk that the organisation he is joining is enemy-controlled.

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Eventually, near-world-ending WMD (bio-variety most likely) could become garage-brewable. If we do get there (10% likely in 50 years?) we may wish for an omnipotent UN+ surveillance state. But I oppose one for now – we should just focus on making sure you can never 3d print the end of the world for fewer than 100 million dollars.

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  3. Musey says

    I completely agree with you Malcolm. We are constantly monitored and it doesn’t sit well with me, but there is nothing to be done about it unless we want to live like we’re still in the fifties. Even then the degree to which we can opt out is severely restricted.

    Here, the latest ruse by the government under the pretext of protecting us from terrorists, is to collect and hold for two years, the metadata from every computer. The financial cost of this extraordinary surveillance is to be borne by those being watched.

    Every year we submit tax returns where we go through the farce of revealing all our financial details. It’s completely pointless because they already know. I received a series of very threatening letters last year wherein I was informed by the the tax office that they had the power to take money from my bank account without my knowledge or permission. This was for a sum of money that I did not owe. A complete stuff up by the tax office for which I received no apology, and wasted hours talking to morons on the phone.

    I do think there is a move to use old technology, that is, older less sophisticated phones. Also, a reluctance to buy some of the latest household gadgets such as TVs that record your conversations. I was listening to a man (on the news) the other day who says that technology is throughout our homes, in the living room, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, gathering information. As recently as year ago, I would have laughed at him.

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Secrecy, I’m not so sure…

    Absolute existential secrecy is all but impossible. But secrecy in the sense of private conversations is another matter — though of course there is no airtight warrant against betrayal, and the larger the movement, and the higher the stakes all round, the more likely it becomes.

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:22 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    Eventually, near-world-ending WMD (bio-variety most likely) could become garage-brewable. If we do get there (10% likely in 50 years?) we may wish for an omnipotent UN+ surveillance state.

    Yet another depressing fact: such things are all too likely to be technologically available before long. Nanotech offers some frightening possibilities too, including one fairly simple idea that is so awful I won’t even talk about it here.

    When we get to the point where our only choices are annihilation by WMDs or an omnipotent (and presumably omniscient) UN surveillance state, the party’s pretty much over, as far as I am concerned.

    I think I’d prefer the WMDs.

    Frank Herbert wrote, in the “prehistory” of his Dune series, about something called the “Butlerian Jihad“: a long-ago revolt against thinking machines. It seemed far-fetched when I read the book as a boy, but makes more sense all the time.

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    Shall I assume you won’t be getting one of these?

    Posted March 14, 2016 at 10:34 pm | Permalink
  7. JK says


    Posted March 15, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink
  8. Musey says

    Definitely no, Malcolm. I’m strictly low-tech but because I had such an old phone until recently, my replacement brings me right up to the minute. It’s wasted on me, and yes, I often leave it at home, not because I’m worried about being tracked but because I forget to take it with me.

    Ant says he will write a response to you when he stops working 14 hour nights. He hasn’t forgotten. For a minute there, I thought he had changed.

    The engagement party is Saturday. What relation is my future daughter in law’s father to me? I have heard that the man is a Trump supporter, not that it makes any difference from here but it does demonstrate how invested we, in far away places, have become in a contest in which we have no say.

    Posted March 16, 2016 at 4:30 am | Permalink

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