The Samovar


The surveillance society III
November 16, 2006, 4:53 am
Filed under: Activism, Civil Liberties, Politics, Surveillance Society

Good things always come in trilogies. Think about it: Star Wars (the first three not the shitty second three); The Lord of the Rings. So too with blog entries about the report from the Information Commisioner’s Office on “The surveillance society” (PDF).

In part I, I talked about why the surveillance society is a bad thing when it works correctly. In part II, I talked about why it’s a bad thing when things go wrong. I’m going to finish with some thoughts about opposing it.

The report itself talks about regulating the surveillance society rather than opposing it per se, but it’s on a similar wavelength. In uses the concept of a privacy impact assessments (PIAs) and introduces a new concept of surveillance impact assessments (SIAs). Roughly speaking a PIA is an assessment that has to be carried for a new technology, law, or whatever, that looks at how it will affect privacy, and looks at what can be done to fix any problems. An SIA is the same thing but looks at the wider issue of surveillance rather than just privacy. Certainly, if we could require of the government and big business that they had to produce these assessments and act on them, that would go quite a way to mitigating the worst effects of the surveillance society.

I’m now done with saying what I think and what the report says, I want to know what others think about what we can do about this? Some ideas that occur to me, about which I would any comments:

As citizens we can try to understand these concepts, support governments that propose regulation like this, respond to public consultations, etc. But, these are all quite minor things. The key is to bring the issue to light. How can we do that?

Is it possible to oppose the surveillance society without addressing a whole host of other issues? Firstly, can we oppose social sorting (as described in part I) without opposing capitalism itself? The logic of capitalism puts profit over people, and the surveillance society facilitates this enormously. I’m not saying we shouldn’t attempt to soften the harshness of capitalism by addressing things like this, and insisting that we have to have a revolution to solve the problem. I’m just saying, can we meaningfully explain what is wrong with this aspect of the surveillance society without talking about why the logic of capitalism is itself wrong? The same question can be asked about the environment. Secondly, can we oppose the level of government surveillance without opposing their conceptions of crime and terrorism?

Finally, on a rather glum note, I think we should recognise that it is likely that we will fail to stop the surveillance society (which shouldn’t stop us from doing our best to try to stop it), and that regulation will be insufficient in practice. We need to know what we intend to do given that. As the report points out, in a surveillance society there is a limit to what an individual can do. It simply isn’t possible to know where your data is flowing from organisation to organisation, or department to department, for example. Despite this, there would presumably be some benefit to making people aware of the ways in which it operates, the likely consequences, and the things they can do to mitigate the effects.

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