With too many people defending the new levels of surveillance, I thought I would introduce a new word: Panoptopia — a world made wonderful by having so much surveillance that we can catch all the bad guys.
David Brin introduced the concept to many in The Transparent Society, though he doesn’t claim it’s a utopia, just better than the alternative as he sees it.
It used to be that “If you are innocent you have nothing to hide” was supposed to be a statement whose irony was obvious to all. Today, I see people saying it seriously.
Because of that, we’re on our way to building the pushbutton panopticon. We’re building the apparatus of very high levels of surveillance and pretending we are putting checks and balances on their use. Cameras everwhere. NSA taps into all international communications. Total Information Awareness and other large data mining projects. Vast amounts of our private records stored on 3rd party servers of search engines and email companies where we have fewer rights and even less control. CALEA requirements that phone equipment and broadband lines have pre-built wiretapping facilities, in theory to be turned on only with a warrant.
In all these cases we are told the information won’t be abused, that process will be followed. And in most cases, I can even believe them.
But the problem is this. Now our rights are protected not by physical limits or extreme costs, but by a policy decision. To the extreme, by a simple policy bit, a single switch. Now to change the society from a free one to a police state can become effectively just throwing a switch if you have the political will.
In the old days, creating a police state required taking over the radio stations with tanks, and putting police on all the street corners. We are building a world where it involves getting the political will to throw a switch. And we’re selling that switch to all the countries of the world as they buy our technology.
Can you wonder why I fear this doesn’t end well?