Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

PAA's down, but they're're not dead yet...

Not often you see us link to the Cato Institute here, but Tim Lee has been becoming one of my heroes over the past couple of years. While I don't agree with him and his pals about everything, or even most things, they know far more about technology than I ever will, and he does a good job of explaining what exactly is wrong with Bush's demands for the extension of the (Protect America Act overhaul of) FISA bill in terms even I can understand:

In 1976, a special Senate committee revealed massive abuses of power by the FBI, the National Security Agency and other government agencies. One notorious case was the FBI's attempts to undermine and discredit Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The bureau tapped King's phones and bugged his hotel rooms. The FBI used the information in attempts to discredit King with churches, universities and the press.

The problem with opposing surveillance is that people either assume that a) you have something to hide, or b) you're a conspiracy theorist, whereas what actually worries people who've thought about it is the ability it gives whoever the current vested interests are to stifle dissent without ever necessarily having to descend into an openly Stalinist police state. The problems tend to come at the margins, rather than in any one, satisfying dramatic moment. People feel more constrained in their behaviour, are less likely to associate with others who might be considered deviant etc. etc. Given that these little choices are harder to notice, the best way to stir people out of their apathy is usually to reason counter-factually - to show the things that might not have happened had more surveillance been in place. The MLK case seems like a very good example.

Also, in amongst a bunch of great points, Siva Vaidhyanathan points out that the "shaping behaviour" model of surveillance - what academics tend to call panopticism - can be a bit of a red herring.


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