Have We Passed Peak Surveillance?

Doc Searls wrote a great, very detailed post this weekend titled Thoughts on privacy where he argues we have passed the point of “Peak Surveillance.” He says, about halfway through the post:

“I can’t prove it, but I do believe we have passed Peak Surveillance. When Edward Snowden’s shit hit the fan in May, lots of people said the controversy would blow over. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our frogs are not fully boiled, and we’re jumping out of the pot. New personal powers will be decentralized. And in cases where those powers are centralized, it will be in ways that are better aligned with individual and social power than the feudal systems of today. End-to-end principles are still there, and still apply. “

Five minutes later, I read an article in the New York Times titled Drug Agents Use Vast Phone Trove, Eclipsing N.S.A.’s which basically explains how the DEA has been paying AT&T for access to all its phone records for at least the last six years and to embed AT&T employees alongside DEA agents and local law enforcement to supply them with phone data going back to 1987. This program is called Hemisphere and – like Fight Club – is not allowed to be talked about. The text from p12 of the official presentation follows:

“All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document. If there is no alternative to referencing a Hemisphere request, then the results should be referenced as information obtained from an AT&T subpoena.”

Searls refers to a quote from Bruce Schneier about our new feudal overlords, which I think is just brilliant.

“Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.”

And then, I saw the hilariously sad and funny video “I Forgot My Phone.”

I have no idea if we’ve passed Peak Surveillance. But I know we are talking about a lot these days. I’m lucky that I’m married to Amy who has spent an enormous amount of time thinking about privacy (her college thesis was on the right to privacy). Our conversations about this are rich, and it’s caused me to start thinking 20 years in the future about the dynamics. This has happened before and it will happen again. So say we all.

  • I can’t prove it either but my sense is that we are a long way from ‘Peak Surveillance’ and from ‘Peak Surveillance Abuse.’

    • Chris Mack

      I agree.

  • James Mitchell

    Brad, how are you personally affected by government surveillance and government arrogance?

    For me, I am personally affected quite a lot by government stupidity and incompetence but none whatsoever by government surveillance. If the NSA is listening in to my telephone calls or reading my emails, the only worry I have is that some poor government employee might die of boredom.

    • Even if we assume that ‘the system’ would be fine if operating as you describe, there are 2 inescapable problems:
      a) such a system will be abused e.g. NSA analysts spying on their lovers.
      b) protections that exist now may be overridden for dark purposes in the future. Who can say what some future administration might do?

      • James Mitchell

        If NSA analysts are spying on their lovers, that is not good, but it is not the end of the world.

        As to future administrations, our system works pretty well. If certain government officials are breaking the law, there is a reasonable chance they will be caught and jailed. If a President had the sinister wishes you mention, a lot of people would have to participate in his illegal scheme.

        This elaborate surveillance system was setup for a reason, namely to attempt to stop terrorism. We have not had a second 9/11 and the NSA no doubt deserves a lot of the credit.

        Right now people are up in arms because they have had the luxury of not being attacked. If there is a second 9/11, people will be asking, “Why did we not give the NSA more freedom to spy?”

        • My point was not that it is a bad thing for anyone to spy on their lovers. It was that a system that wide open is vulnerable to abuse for any purpose.
          And my point was not that a President has a ‘sinister wish’ but that he has the power to toss aside the checks and balances that some seem to take seriously as a protection for a free society. This could be done for purposes which he does not consider sinister and which many agree with but the point is that the supposed checks and balances are illusory.
          Many bad things happen for good reasons and total surveillance may prove to be one of them.
          Time to re-ready Popper’s ‘The Open Society and its Enemies.’

    • The system is only robust with enough sunlight and opposing pressure. You can’t implement checks and balances with “what goes on in Ft Meade, stays in Ft Meade”.

  • I’m sure you’ve seen this, but just in case you missed it:


  • Brian

    If it is transmitted digitally it is recorded at some binary level. The scary point is when they can (or worse try) to use data predictively. Conficer worm is a great example of how scary this frontier really is. Who knows? Don’t forget the infamous quote of synthetic sugar baron Don Rumsfeld: ” There are known unknowns; and unknown unknowns”. Good luck.

  • RBC

    It will be interesting to see how the ad networks are affected by this. They can do many of the same things that the gov’t can. The main defense I’ve seen for them is they deal with anonymised data. Maybe Amy can give us a guest post?

    Continuing my reign of off topic comments, I’d also add that Seth Godin has a great post today on education and the importance of learning together. For me – the best blogs that foster and embrace comments and dialogue such as feld.com and avc.com are a learning experience. The money quote is “We learn best when we learn together. …Learning together serves a crucial function… it makes learning happen.” For those interested in education I’d definitely recommend clicking through to the link: http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/09/learn-together.html

  • kermit64113

    Brad, I think a future post should be called “When algorithms go wrong.” It is not the storage of data, or the anonymous classification of data, but the specificity of poorly written and uncorrelated algorithms (or human decisions based on the poorly written algorithms) that causes deep issues. It’s hard to believe that we have peaked on the “therefore.”

    Think about it this way. Comcast, Time Warner, Charter, Cox have known for years what channel you are watching and when (“We have far better data then Neilsen” was the quote to me). They know when we sign on to your computers, and which websites each device in our homes is accessing. For the few home phones left, they know where we are calling. They have years of per home profile data. Outside of the Charter/ Sandvine media debacle in 2009, has deep packet inspection been called out? No, because they don’t come to erroneous conclusions form it – they use it to validate 25+ years of baseline data they have collected.

    It’s not the data. It’s the algorithms. When the algorithms go wrong, kids get mobile porn and pot and beer ads. And, when the algorithms drive to bad decision making processes, Lois Lerner takes the Fifth.

    • Great comment. In any event the collection and storage of data seems impossible to stop, given the ubiquitous commercial nature of the Internet. Rabbit’s been out of the hat since ’94 or so and it’s far easier to re-use that rabbit than to create another hat. The bigger issue may be Peak Abstraction. We’re all leaves in various trees with chains of nodes dumping us into super-groups, on up a given tree until we hit its root node. When nodes contain too many sub-nodes to evaluate logically/meaningfully and leaves are far removed from their nodes, yet power enforces any sort of algorithmically-motivated action toward the leaves, we hit some pretty scary peaks. If one of those trees is government, the air will be damned thin up there.

      • kermit64113

        I like the leaves analogy. The biggest issue to me that is being patently ignored is child (13 or less) and minor (13-18) surveillance. It’s so darn easy to do through mobile. Path ($800,000 fine for violating COPPA) is only the first to have to deal with this issue. If the advertiser can identify through algorithms that the user is likely less than 13 or 18 (and that it a big “if”), at what point are they obligated to inform the applications provider of this fact?

  • I don’t think we are at Peak Surveillance (great term) since there is a significant lag in ‘whats going on’ and ‘what we know is going on’, in some cases 26 years! And there are players already invested in the next gen of surveillance. But… I think the pendulum is slowing on what normal people are comfortable with and the general image of the NSA. I suspect the ‘right to privacy’ will swing the other way the quickest in the consumer segment, and government of course will be last on board, but it will happen.


  • At one point in history we used to have Kings, now we (in this and many countries) have Presidents. Governments (and perhaps companies as well) will always go as far as they are allowed to by the masses, meaning that we get “the government we deserve”, meaning the government we negotiate.

  • RBC

    Brad, following up on my post yesterday. wondering what your thoughts are on the implications for online advertising – and ad supported models in general – as this seems to be a trending topic …


    • I don’t really know.