Trigger Warning: tortured metaphors
TL;DR: Oppression drives surveillance, not vice versa. Mass surveillance is a lagging symptom of a government that is abusing its charge, not a leading indicator of trouble down the road. It is not a warning sign of what the monster may become. It is a reminder of what it already is. It is but a shadow of the monster.
Mass surveillance has little to no impact on the rate and scale at which the government deprives people of physical liberty through dispossession, incarceration, torture, and execution.
The amount of people that are persecuted by a regime is not a function of the data available to the regime. No torture dungeon ever stands empty, no mass grave half-filled, no executioner out of work for lack of evidence against the accused.
Attempts to anthropomorphize and rationalize behavior of oppressive regimes, to imbue them with logic and reason, lead to a faulty conclusion that with more surveillance data they will become more abusive— that mass surveillance leads to mass oppression.
It is tempting to imagine a dissident who is betrayed by mass surveillance, or saved by evading it. It is easy to give in to this fallacy of a rational adversary; to assume that if only the prosecutor is denied sufficient evidence, then more people will keep their freedom. At scale, that’s just not the case. And we must not let the tragedy of a single life cause us to lose sight of a statistic of a million others. The prosecutor’s quota will be met. One way or another.
This myth of a rational and competent oppressor is well illustrated in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell was remarkably astute in his depiction of a Stalinist society, in most ways. But there were some key misses. Having grown up in the USSR, aspects of the book felt conspicuously foreign to me. Most notable for this discussion, the security apparatus in 1984 was obsessed with catching Winston in the act, with proving actual guilt.
This cognitive integrity of the oppression machine is wholly absent from the world described by contemporary Soviet authors. On the contrary, literature of the oppressed is permeated with depictions of abuses that are utterly arbitrary. Rybakov summarized it well in Children of the Arbat:
Интересна полная абсурдность поводов для ареста: Борис Соловейчик отбывает ссылку за неправильную пунктуацию в лозунге,[…] типографский наборщик Ивашкин сослан за пустяковую опечатку в газете , повар районной столовой наказан за наличие в меню блюда под названием “щи ленивые”, Саша Панкратов осужден за предложение изучать в институте бухгалтерию и выпуск стенгазеты… Конечно же, все эти нелепые обвинения не являются случайными. Они помогают насаждать в народе страх, покорность. А страх рождается тогда, когда нет уверенности в собственной безопасности.
Of note is the complete absurdity of reasons for arrests: Boris Soloveitchik is serving time for incorrect punctuation in a slogan,[…] typesetter Ivashkin is sentenced for a trivial misprint in the newspaper, the cook of a district canteen is punished for the presence of a dish called “lazy soup” on the menu, Sasha Pankratov is convicted for proposing that accounting be taught at the institute and for publication of a newsletter… Of course, all of these ridiculous charges are not accidental. They help to instill in the population a sense of fear, submissiveness. Because fear arises when there is no certainty in one’s own safety.
Surveillance is the monster’s shadow. It is a dark and chilling reminder of the monster’s presence. It strikes fear into people’s hearts and reminds them of the terror their government is capable of unleashing.
But the shadow is not the monster itself. The size of the shadow has nothing to do with how large or vicious the monster may become in the future. It is not a warning sign of what the monster may become. It is a reminder of what it already is.
Governments have legitimate fears and a responsibility to use their powers to identify and neutralize dangerous threats. But the state is the apex predator and the number of credible threats posing real danger makes up a tiny fraction of those persecuted and prosecuted by the system.
A predator is a fitting metaphor for an [oppressive] regime. And a predator hunts because it is hungry, not because the prey deserves it.
It is remarkable how often people overlook this fundamental point and assume that the victim must offer some justification for the hunt.
The real fallacy of the “nothing-to-hide” argument is not that there is always something to hide, but that there is nothing specific to find. The prey’s very existence makes them a victim. Their beliefs and actions are not all that relevant.
“If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.”
— Cardinal Richelieu
“You bring me the man, I’ll find you the crime “
— Lavrentiy Beria
It is odd to me that people routinely cite these as evidence of the evils of mass surveillance, as a warning of what oppression surveillance may unleash. Because I see in them the exact opposite — the utter irrelevance of objective evidence or actual guilt in selecting targets for persecution.
Neither Richelieu nor Beria are looking for the perpetrator of a crime. They are only seeking a marginally plausible excuse to hang the person they have already selected. Surveillance does not lead to oppression. At most, it provides an after-the-fact rationalization of abuse.
Such rationalization, while often sought by the abusers, is never truly required. The evidence is not really needed nor demanded. It could be fabricated or ignored altogether.
Yet, oppressive regimes do seek to keep their populations under constant watch. And it’s not just to spread the shadow of fear. I believe they buy into the same myth of a rational tyrant. Like the best executive teams of today, oppressors believe that more data will lead to more informed, more objective decisions. Of course, just like for many of their industry counterparts, it is just idle data voyeurism at best and arbitrary rationalization of decisions already made at worst.
And so the pursuit of large scale surveillance by the regime ends up having the same effect on conviction counts as the fight against it — none.
When the state decides that ten million people are on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence, evidence is never the bottleneck. The main constraints are the state’s appetite and logistical capacity for rounding up the masses, not how accurately it can identify the correct ten million individuals.
Genocide is not some new Big Data phenomenon. For when the drumbeat starts, there’s never a shortage of patriots rushing to answer the call of the fatherland to turn on and turn in their friends, neighbors, and family who have been declared a threat to national prosperity.
Oppression, like all politics, is local.
We need the monster. We choose to feed it because of the protection it offers us from each other, from nature, from other monsters. In exchange for this protection we allow the monster to extract a tribute from us — a tribute of gold and blood. That is our social contract.
The souls claimed by the government for its prisons, its concentration camps, its mass graves; the people banished to the edges of society — they are all part of the blood sacrifice we offer in exchange for our safety.
But we also have an obligation to keep our monster tamed and its appetite strictly in check. Governments are always hungry for more power. Keeping the government restrained and accountable to those governed is at the core of the American tradition. It is our founding principle.
We pay our taxes. But, we also impose a web of restraints on how much money the government can take from us. In contrast, we have not been nearly as diligent in limiting the number of lives it is allowed to take.
After all, the rallying cry of the American Revolution was not “No incarceration without representation.”
Instead of explicitly limiting how many people can be deprived of liberty, we have chosen to control how the government is allowed to go about it. Instead of limiting the monster’s intake, we focus on its table manners.
This Victorian obsession with protocol — this faith that proper behavior necessarily leads to better outcomes — is misguided.
That’s not to say that protocol does not matter. If nothing else, it helps provide a sense of fairness. But it is not sufficient to prevent abuse.
A great illustration of this is the growth of US prison population post Miranda. One of the most iconic symbols of American respect for the rule of law and individual rights is the Miranda warning. On screen, it is a universal signal to the audience that the arresting officer is honest, that the rights of suspects are protected, and that the system is just.
Below is the chart of US incarceration rates with the date of the Miranda v Arizona Supreme Court decision added for reference.
I am not suggesting that there is any causation (that Miranda somehow caused the jump in incarceration rates). Nor even correlation. Which is precisely the point.
Lack of proper protocol is not the main threat to our civil liberties. What matters more than how people are deprived of liberty, is how many.
To paraphrase Bakunin, when people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called “the Due Process Stick.”
Taming the Monster
In the US, to focus on potential abuses of surveillance down the road, one must overlook the grim reality of today.
The Land of the Free imprisons a larger portion of its own population than any other country. By far.
There is no need to speculate about what might happen. The government’s embrace of surveillance is not a slippery slope towards greater oppression. It is merely a reminder of the abuses already taking place.
And yet, discussions philosophizing on the dangers of surveillance rarely address the very concrete reality of today’s incarceration rates.
How to reconcile this fear of a creeping shadow with a relative indifference to the monster that has cast it?
The thing is, if you are reading this, you have probably never seen the monster. It does not typically prey on the likes of you and me. US imprisonment rates are highly biased against the poor.
To help you locate your place on the chart above, here are some reference points for 2017 US household income, rounded to $10,000:
- 25th percentile: $30,000
50th percentile: $60,000
75th percentile: $110,000
90th percentile: $170,000
The bias is even stronger when race and gender are taken into account.
This fact, as uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, may explain the outrage over surveillance among the US educated (upper-)middle class. We are suddenly feeling on our own necks the chill of the shadow from the monster that has until now been content to prey on others. Blissfully unaware of the monster itself, our reaction is to focus on warding off the shadow.
But the shadow itself is not the threat. It is the monster that casts it that we should be concerned with. To tame it, we must limit the number of people we allow to be put behind bars.
Beyond imposing controls on how the government is allowed to collect and use evidence, we need to limit how many people the government can detain and imprison. We must hold our government accountable for the outcomes, not just the process.