Sunday, July 12, 2015

Big Brother Is Watching You: Accepting Surveillance In Modern Society

Almost exactly two years ago, the author wrote an article discussing the strange death of privacy in the 21st century. One of the key changes to society in the last twenty years, coinciding with the rise of the "internet age", is the "surveillance society".

The UK is the most highly-watched country on the planet, according to the experts. While the USA may be seen as having a longer history in this field (thanks to the long history of conspiracy theorists), the UK is the real home of "Big Brother", in both the fictitious, and real, sense of the term.
The birth of CCTV around twenty-five years ago quickly exploded across the UK, so that the nineties were the decade that saw the "surveillance society" and cameras become ubiquitous on every street corner, private and public spaces. Improved technology made it possible; political will made it happen.

A Camera In Every Corner

The original reason for the the sudden rise of CCTV was crime prevention. Of this still is the main reason for them, and why they exist in every retail space and public area that is watchable. The ethical issues were never really discussed at a serious level; it was simply assumed by everyone to be "a good thing".
Looking at it from a rational perspective, CCTV, by definition, is a very poor form of conventional "crime prevention". For anyone with an understanding of criminology (the author has a criminology background), CCTV can never be a true resource of crime prevention; only another method of securing criminal prosecution.

The simple explanation is this: cameras record events; they do not prevent events (and crimes) from happening. They are a useful police tool because, of course, it allows the authorities to know which individuals are responsible. Indirectly, yes, they may discourage people from committing crimes if they see an increased likelihood of being caught from CCTV footage, but there is little real evidence of this being actually the case. The would-be perpetrators simply wear "hoodies", thus solving this "problem". This explains why the "hoodie" is the clothing of choice of gangs and low-level criminality over the past twenty years.

So if cameras are not, in reality effective measures of crime prevention, what are they for?

Here we come to the crux of the issue, which will be fully explained once we've looked at the other, more insidious, arm of the "surveillance society" - the internet.

Full-Spectrum Dominance and "mastering" the Internet

The birth and rise of the internet coincided with the proliferation of CCTV across the world. Originally, the internet was seen as a great liberator, allowing masses of information free at the click of a button. Of course, this fact is still true; what has changed is the governments' perception of it.

The internet is essentially an "online mirror" for human nature. You can find the very best and most enlightening aspects of human knowledge; similarly, you can find the very darkest and basest elements so of the human mind also, if you are so inclined. Governments quickly realised this, and saw how criminal networks used the internet for all manner of illegal operations. In other words, it gave criminal organisations a place to carry out their operations beyond the reach of government.

In places like the USA, the internet in the nineties started to be used by right-wing extremist groups; the type of groups that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was involved with. Doubtless, this must have terrified the life out of the FBI, as they saw how exposed they could be if the internet was left more-or-less unchecked. By 1998, with the East Africa bombings by Islamic radicals, the US government must have been even more acutely-aware of how some of these extremist organisations around the world were using the internet to better co-ordinate their activities. The internet's dark underbelly wasn't just about porn and a venue for criminal activity; it was a place full of terror.

Then 9/11 happened.

Up to this point governments in the USA and UK must have felt they were always playing the game "one step behind". Now they knew that the danger was from an unanticipated, and vastly underestimated, source. The PATRIOT act in the USA, and similar legislation in the UK, gave government the authority to more effectively "master" the internet, which it has been doing with greater and greater efficiency ever since. Year on year, as revealed by the Edward Snowden revelations, more and more data was being stored and evaluated by government.
While governments protest that the vast majority of this data - essentially the internet activity of millions of people -  is ignored even if it is automatically intercepted, the basic point is that privacy no longer really exists.

"The purpose of power is power"

Here we arrive at the crux of the issue. The purpose of government is "to govern" i.e. to control its citizens. This is the fundamental principle of why people willingly allow themselves to be governed: for the sake of collective security. Because, when it comes down to it, we're all scared.

In the modern age, in the 21st century, the common perception is that we are living in a time of unparalleled freedom. At a superficial level this may well be true: more and more people are being granted "rights" that they have never had before (e.g. the legalisation of gay marriage; the effective decriminalisation of soft drugs). People are free to express themselves in ways that were unthinkable forty years ago. Conversely, racism and base prejudice, while certainly still in existence, are no longer accepted as the norm as they were decades ago.
But a better way of understanding what's happened is this: government is happy to cede control over issues it is indifferent to. The examples raised above are all issues that government generally has little interest in directly controlling over anyway, or are issues that are too much hassle to control (the prevalence of soft drugs being a good example).

While it is willingly cedes control on what might be called "social issues", it conversely has doubled-down on security issues. This is the essence of modern, 21st century government: where government does less, but what it does do, it does with even greater, ruthless efficiency.

The 9/11 attacks and "terrorism" in general since then demonstrate that government most fears what it can't control. Unlike social issues, it cannot remain "indifferent" to terrorism and the loss of government "security", because these issues, to government, are integral to government's functioning. This explains why government can take such a hard line on "mastering" the internet and controlling its own (and others') resources, even beyond the point of rationalism. When the meaning of government is security, people in government can quickly lose a sense of perspective.

The Edward Snowden scandal was a good example of this. When these revelations exploded onto the world scene two years ago, courtesy of "The Guardian" newspaper, the US government realised it had few legal pathways to prevent publication, so instead worked with the newspaper best it could to limit the damage. The Guardian worked carefully to make sure that it complied with US law, while still publishing everything that it could.
By contrast, the UK government was in a much more knee-jerk in its reaction, encouraged by the fact that UK law gave the government far greater power to do what it liked. So after some deliberation, they came down on The Guardian like a ton of bricks, compelling the newspaper to destroy the computers holding the secret information (with government officials watching to make sure!). The irony of this act was that it was entirely futile; The Guardian had copies of the secret information in New York, which the US government had no legal powers (or the willingness) to retrieve. The UK government was seemingly making a point: we can do what we like, even if it's pointless.

So what is the purpose of the "surveillance society"?
As said earlier, governments exist because people are, at heart, scared. This then gives governments a "raison d'etre": to exist for the sake of existing. Information is power, and as the UK government's reaction to the Edward Snowden revelations showed, power is power. In the 21st century, governments have the power to "master" the internet; therefore, there is no reason not to do it. To fail to use this power would be seen (in their eyes) as an abrogation of their duty as government. Government's job is therefore also "threat management"; any act of terrorism becomes seen as an "existential" threat to those in government because they see any threat as potentially lethal to their authority. It is down this pathway that leads logically to authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, society is largely indifferent. The proliferation of the internet and advances in media technology have coincided with a change in individual perception. Some argue that the modern generation are more narcissistic than ever. As a result, they would almost welcome the technological "opportunities" that their own version of "full-spectrum dominance" gives them over the internet: they can be everywhere, all the time - while the government knows what they are doing everywhere, all the time.

This appears to be the future: citizens of the "surveillance state",  the "me generation", gleefully enjoying the superficial limelight of Big Brother. After all, if they've done nothing wrong, they have nothing to fear, right?

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