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.