Law in the Internet Society

A Threat Too Small and Too Big

-- By VinayPatel - 11 Oct 2019

Online privacy and security seem to be matters of growing public concern, or at least growing public awareness. There have been major news stories in recent years about government mass surveillance, severe data breaches, and challenges to tech giants who have collected more data than they care to protect. This makes it easier to be suspicious of the government and tech companies and to find audiences to join in suspicion. However, translating that suspicion into action to actually promote online privacy and security is still difficult. The gap between our feelings of concern and our ability to act comes from the sense that surveillance is a threat both too small and too big.

A Barrage of Threats

Between 9/11, the Great Recession, climate change, the current President, and much more, my generation sees the world as constantly in crisis. Various media regularly inform us of the many ways we are each going to die, and there are existential threats like nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, as well as large asteroid collisions for which we are overdue, which can take us all down together. In this context, any threat that does not imply our demise is not a priority and does not require our attention, unless or until it becomes a crisis. However, large problems are, at the same time, harder for us to comprehend because its effects are not usually personal. Most people’s day-to-day experiences are not apparently or identifiably affected by issues like North Korean proliferation. Big threats command our attention and create anxiety, then leave us with nothing to do about them.

Online privacy is not in that category of threats. Surveillance does not in itself present a threat of personal harm; it has to be paired with an actor using that data for malicious purposes to go from potential threat to crisis. Corporations selling our data to profit from ad revenue makes us uneasy, but it is not enough of a threat to command attention. Other countries are dealing with more explicitly authoritarian regimes which use the same technology to target its citizens, but because most people do not see that in the US, we can ignore the problem. However, this problem is fully integrated into our daily lives. We are constantly interacting with devices which take our data. We have the power to limit and diversify our technology use. We can make the switch to free software. Yet, we cannot give the issue enough attention to motivate those changes. Our attention is reserved for the problems we cannot change and expect to destroy us. And if we are going to be destroyed anyway, it is hard to care about who has our data.

A Lack of Power

If we do start to care and understand the extent of the privacy problem, it quickly becomes unwieldy. There are global corporations which dominate communications infrastructure throughout the world. They have so much control over what we see that they can effectively manipulate us with self-promoting propaganda. There are also sophisticated surveillance states unwilling to release the power to control their populations. They inspire fear about major security threats, then claim they can only solve them with surveillance so that we willingly sacrifice our freedom for safety. For the vast majority of people who do not know how software works and are not literate in code, they have no choice but to trust these actors whom they perceive to be the greatest experts. There are also practical concerns people have about radically restructuring the technological environment. They would have to give up their current technologies and miss out on the various features they offer which people now rely on. There is a lot of work to do.

While we each have the ability to create more privacy and security for ourselves, we can only go so far by making surveillance more difficult for those who surveil us. There has to be a bigger, structural change. Companies have to change their cultures to place an emphasis on freedom rather than control, or they must be supplanted by companies that do. Regulation from governments would probably play a big role in that. Breaking up tech companies so that there is less centralized control of the internet sounds potentially useful. However, a government which benefits from the massive surveillance tools these companies provide would have little incentive to crack down on them. There must also be a change within the government to value the privacy and freedom of its citizens and find better ways to address real threats. The power to change those companies and those governments remains with them, not us. Arguably, this is where massive, direct democratic participation is supposed to play a role so that we embrace the power we did not realize we had and work together to solve our collective problems. That does not sound like it is going to happen soon, at least without a lot of work, so instead, the size of the problem has knocked us into submission.

Embracing Doom

People are ready to admit that the state of their digital privacy and security is significantly flawed and that changes would be good. However, they might also find that change is unlikely to come and their efforts to produce it would be in vain or that they have other things they would rather worry about. At that point, the easiest thing to do is ignore the problem and accept surveillance as an unfortunate, but permanent condition. If resistance seems futile, there is no reason to try, and if we have the energy to try, that energy seems like it should go toward the deadliest threats. In either case, the concerns we have about technology do not translate into action.

This draft conveys an idea clearly, which is its strong point. But it does so in a static fashion. Each paragraph says pretty much the same thing: if we think we cannot solve this problem, because it is too daunting at both the individual and systemic level, we will instead ignore the problem and give up.

This may be true. I have pointed in class to the form of collective hopelessness Russians call beznadyoga, and to its production in the Soviet Union as a form of political control, as one billboard on an analytic road to an understanding of the phenomenon. Climate denial and the post-denial forms of pro-fossil propaganda are another. My own approach to solving the problem of collective learned helplessness is FreedomBox, which is a way for technologists to make, use and spread mechanisms of response that teach possibility.

None of these approaches may be to your taste, which is fine. But the best route to improving the draft is to introduce new ideas and forms of analysis, whatever you may want them to be, so that the next draft doesn't repeat the same idea multiple times in eight paragraphs.


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r3 - 30 Nov 2019 - 14:06:04 - EbenMoglen
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