Essays on Technology and Culture

Against Coveillence and Surveillance Alike

Over at Wired, Kevin Kelly is suggesting that we deal with surveillance, public and private alike, by giving in. And by spying back.

[O]ur central choice now is whether this surveillance is a secret, one-way panopticon — or a mutual, transparent kind of “coveillance” that involves watching the watchers. The first option is hell, the second redeemable.

Oh, if it were only that easy. And even if it was, it still wouldn't be worth doing.

It's not that easy because there's an imbalance of power between the spies, be they Facebook or the NSA, and us, the normal users. It's to the benefit of the spies that we not see the secret sauce that powers what they do. It's why social media companies bury the lead on what they do with and to our data in pages upon pages of legalese, designed to obfuscate their intentions. When was the last time you read Facebook's Terms of Service Agreement? With the NSA, you have the additional problem of trust. Namely, the government will trust them, before it trusts you. The NSA would happily operate in secret, transparency being a threat to national security.

Further complicating the mess is that the tools of surveillance are owned by the companies (and governments) that make it their business to spy on us. They won't open those tools up without a fight, unless you're an advertiser with a lot of money to spend. If there's one thing Facebook, Google, and the NSA have in common, it's not just that they want us to keep our mitts out of the gear they use to spy on us, but they have the same reason for doing so: to prevent competition.

Bruce Schneider was on top of this six years ago.

When your doctor says “take off your clothes,” it makes no sense for you to say, “You first, doc.” The two of you are not engaging in an interaction of equals.

It's perhaps true that, should we be able to overcome the Himalayan institutional obstacles preventing “coveillence” we would be a society of equals. That still doesn't mean it's a society we would want to live in. A good parallel is the Cold War, and the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction from matched stockpiles of nuclear missiles. Neither side dared make the first move, knowing that retaliation would be swift and deadly.

There are so many reasons to keep a secret. It's easy when you're a wealthy, white, heterosexual male to be willing to expose yourself. Not everyone has that luxury. I think back to Mike Monteiro's “How Designers Destroyed the World” talk, and the way Facebook's design exposed a woman's sexuality to her parents, destroying her relationship with them. It was a relationship predicated on hiding an aspect of her self that she knew her parents would react against. Maybe she planned to come out, in time, but it was not Facebook's job to reveal it for her before she was ready.

And we all have skeletons in our closets that we don't want to share. Because we don't know how people will react, and because we do. Part of where Kevin Kelly's argument falls apart—moreso—is when he tries to bring anthropology into it.

“For eons humans have lived in tribes and clans where every act was open and visible and there were no secrets. We evolved with constant co-monitoring. Contrary to our modern suspicions, there wouldn’t be a backlash against a circular world where we constantly spy on each other because we lived like this for a million years…”

I call bullshit.

And that call of bullshit is backed up by the narcissism of small differences. We see it everywhere, from the snark between Apple and Android fanboys, to the conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, to the Sunni/Shiite divide in Iraq. In small, tightly knit groups, deviance from the norm is a threat to group cohesion. In large groups, like cities, we get privacy, and the ability to fork new groups with our own norms and mores. The Internet is the biggest city, and every group on it behaves differently.

And those groups can be just as insular and unempathetic as the early tribes Kevin Kelly so romanticizes. When Kelly says “We’ve broadened our circle of empathy, from clan to race, race to species, and soon beyond that,” he's being naïve at best, disingenuous at worst. There's enough evidence to show that the Internet is making us less empathetic to people who aren't like us. At the very least, it's just given us new avenues to express that lack of empathy.

The imbalance of power that creates the surveillance state comes the dichotomy of the public and private self that is a defining characteristic of humanity. We are not open, or closed. There are a million subtle positions between sharing everything and sharing nothing. We share more of ourselves with our spouses than our friends, more with our friends than our co-workers, more with co-workers than our barista. Some things we keep to ourselves alone.

100% transparent or 100% opaque is a new development, a function pulled as much from the binary nature of computers as it does from technology teams who either don't care, or are paid not to care, about the degrees between those extremes. Instead of bending ourselves to the on or off, open or closed nature of our technology, we should bend the technology to be more like us.

There's an air of defeatism, too, in Kelly's argument. We are too far along, it says, on the road to the panopticon. Let's just go all the way, and make sure we have cameras to turn back on our observers. I reject the premise. None of this is written in stone. We made the technologies, we made the governments and corporations that spy on us. We can remake them as well. We are not, we are never, too late.