Why you should care about surveillance

I got tired of people savvying me about the revelations of NSA surveillance and asking why anyone would care about secret, intrusive spying, so I wrote a new Guardian column about it, "The NSA's Prism: why we should care."

We're bad at privacy because the consequences of privacy disclosures are separated by a lot of time and space from the disclosures themselves. It's like trying to get good at cricket by swinging the bat, closing your eyes before you see where the ball is headed, and then being told, months later, somewhere else, where the ball went. So of course we're bad at privacy: almost all our privacy disclosures do no harm, and some of them cause grotesque harm, but when this happens, it happens so far away from the disclosure that we can't learn from it.

You should care about privacy because privacy isn't secrecy. I know what you do in the toilet, but that doesn't mean you don't want to close the door when you go in the stall.

You should care about privacy because if the data says you've done something wrong, then the person reading the data will interpret everything else you do through that light. Naked Citizens, a short, free documentary, documents several horrifying cases of police being told by computers that someone might be up to something suspicious, and thereafter interpreting everything they learn about that suspect as evidence of wrongdoing. For example, when a computer programmer named David Mery entered a tube station wearing a jacket in warm weather, an algorithm monitoring the CCTV brought him to the attention of a human operator as someone suspicious. When Mery let a train go by without boarding, the operator decided it was alarming behaviour. The police arrested him, searched him, asked him to explain every scrap of paper in his flat. A doodle consisting of random scribbles was characterised as a map of the tube station. Though he was never convicted of a crime, Mery is still on file as a potential terrorist eight years later, and can't get a visa to travel abroad. Once a computer ascribes suspiciousness to someone, everything else in that person's life becomes sinister and inexplicable.

The NSA's Prism: why we should care


    1. Have you heard that Microsoft wants to put an always-on camera and microphone in every home!?

  1. You should also care about it because once somebody has the tools to have access to everything wrong any of us might possibly have done, it becomes easier to frame the completely innocent.    You don’t think it’s going to be just as easy to forge connections between an unsavory person and a person you simply dislike?  Or have child porn anonymously e-mailed to them, which they can then bust them for and ruin their credibility in everybody’s eyes?

    The very fact that they have the power to look up anything they want is going to make everybody believe that, if they say they found something, it must be legit.  Especially if they don’t have to actually show the evidence before shipping you off to another country to be held indefinitely, because “national security”.

  2. In addition, if the info fell into the hands of unscrupulous government workers (or corporations in league with the government), and they wanted to stop you from protesting or competing with a business, then you could be discredited by the threat of releasing your embarrassing tweets, emails, phone conversations, Internet posts, photos, etc. Most people probably have some.

    If you are an activist, then you should plan on all your plans being known.  Whatever work you discuss via email or store in the “cloud” you can expect to be intercepted. With data mining you don’t have to be well-known  to be singled out for closer inspection.  Breaking the law is only part of the problem.

  3. that was excellent!  thank you Mr Doctorow.   i’ve wish that i had your column to hit several students’ over the head with when greeted with one version of: “meh it’s not like they’re not after me“.

    also worthy is today’s Gail Collins of how an innocent man and his family is hounded (house broken into) after a few random and spurious links came together for the authorities

  4. I wish I could collect a dollar for every time I have seen the phenomenally stupid comment, “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about”, regarding this issue. 

    But then, people see what they want to see, and disregard the rest, don’t they?

  5. Oh, thank you for this.  I have been told SO many times “if you don’t do anything wrong you don’t have to worry” but, geez – it isn’t the people with the highest standards are are implementing this thing – it’s the idiot bureaucrats who are going to send the cops or feds after us.  I sure as hell don’t trust them to do the right thing.  People see patterns where there aren’t any – having that large a database to play with is going to tempt someone to see nonexistent patterns and someone innocent is going to get hurt.

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