I’ve never been a fan of what’s become known as “the Internet of Things.” Bandwidth around here is precious – too many people are online at all hours, and we have only one viable broadband provider – and I pay extra to make sure I’ll have what I need. I may be an old crank, but I’m neither old enough nor cranky enough to need light switches I can throw digitally from the smartphone I don’t own. I certainly don’t need for my appliances to be having conversations with their distant colleagues about how unappreciative I am.
I have no idea whether mine is a majority or a minority opinion. I know that some people have embraced the Fully Wired Home with great enthusiasm. I’ve often wondered whether those folks have grasped what they’re letting themselves in for. Today we have some thoughts on just what that might be:
The government is already spying on us through spying on us through our computers, phones, cars, buses, streetlights, at airports and on the street, via mobile scanners and drones, through our credit cards and smart meters (see this), television, doll, and in many other ways.
The CIA wants to spy on you through your dishwasher and other “smart” appliances.
NO! Our omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent State wants to transform The Land of the Free into a Total Surveillance Society? Say it ain’t so!
Granted, the amount of digital traffic monitoring required to conduct effective surveillance of 330 million Americans is staggering. The amount of computer power required even to search for keywords that would trigger closer attention is even more staggering. The amount of storage required to save all that traffic for later perusal by analysts, or for use as evidence? Thank you no, I’m already staggered enough. But the more I think about it, the more plausible it seems.
The key is the motive.
My memory isn’t firing on all sixteen cylinders this morning so I can’t be certain of the provenance of the following, but I think it was Lavrenti Beria, the first head of the Soviet Tcheka (later to become the KGB), who said “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” Harvey Silverglate’s recent book Three Felonies a Day provides great insight into the peril the ordinary American faces in our era of law grown luxuriant beyond all justification. The prospect of a database sufficiently expansive and well organized to support Beria’s boast should send a chill down the spine of anyone sensible enough to distrust government.
But why would a government want such a database? For intimidation purposes, of course! Imagine that the following conditions were to be satisfied:
- All electronic communications is monitored and stored by the NSA or an equivalent.
- The storage technique is sophisticated enough that an analyst can isolate one particular person’s traffic in no more than a day.
- WiFi “hotspots” have expanded to map the entire United States.
- Commercial transactions, whether by dint of convenience or through the effective elimination of cash, have become entirely digital.
- Internet-enabled devices capable of monitoring and digitizing domestic conversations have become ubiquitous; at least one such device is “awake and alert” in every household, at every instant of every day.
Would anyone dare to criticize an entity (or one of its masters) that has access to the entirety of his stored transactions and conversations? Would anyone dare to ponder a move against it, whether political or practical?
Don’t know about you, Bubba, but I wouldn’t.
The question isn’t whether they who desire power above all other things would want such a system, but rather how close technology has come to making it possible.
“Motive, means, and opportunity” are and will remain the keys to analyzing any conceivable crime. In truth, they’re the keys to analyzing why anyone does anything, legal or otherwise. When power-seekers view their prospects for gaining, retaining, and increasing their power, the motive for adopting some particular means and maneuvering toward the opportunity will be obvious.
Back when I was still slinging bits, communications was one of my sub-specialties. Based on what I know, and on the current state of technology as I perceive it, I would say that the practical possibility of such a total-surveillance system is not yet here. A few things are still required:
- Computer systems capable of indefinitely expanding their immediately accessible storage without impacting their capabilities;
- Artificial intelligences dedicated to storage in, searches of, and retrieval from such systems;
- The aforementioned ubiquitous digital monitoring devices;
- The elimination of cash.
Those conditions are not yet met...but we’re getting closer. While the steady pressure to make everything Internet-enabled is worrisome, even more ominous is the increasingly visible hostility of all governments to cash. Cash is the indispensable requirement of privacy in transaction. Should it be eliminated (or reduced to a trivial relic), no one would be able to buy or sell without the State knowing everything about the transaction down to the last detail. There’s more at stake here than keeping one’s tax bite tolerable.
Even today, it’s likely that a Beria-like inquest would have no problem catching and burning you or me, Gentle Reader. The subconscious awareness of our vulnerability is what makes that recent reality-TV show about ordinary citizens trying to evade detection and capture by professionals in that art lodge unpleasantly in our backbrains. Could you escape the agents of the State if they were determined to get you? I know I couldn’t.
The recent revelations about the CIA’s hacking abilities and the arsenal of tools it commands are enough to keep a lot of Americans – not all of us on the right of the political spectrum, but preponderantly so – awake at night. A total-surveillance system that employs the devices in our very homes, communicating over “hotspots” generously provided by regional broadband suppliers, is more threatening still. Given the luxuriance and ambiguity of the law today, we ought not to be assisting the State in constructing such a nightmare.