Why work for nothing? (3)

Person of Interest is on one level a slick bit of US TV pap. But it’s found itself in an interesting position in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.

The series’ premise is that after 9/11 the (US) government commissioned a system that would monitor the public and private data running across the world’s computer systems, and spot threats as they emerged. The government was only interested in terrorist threats, so the system’s genius (and billionaire) creator decided to hold on to his own version which would detect threats to ordinary people. What started out as a twist on vigilante stories has necessarily turned into an examination of surveillance, security and privacy. It’s conducted with the necessary bloodless violence and impossible glamour of mainstream entertainment, but impressively has not shied away from the difficult questions raised by its set up.

In this universe the government (particularly in the form of the NSA/Secret Service) and a commercial criminal entity with links to the Chinese are the usual bad guys, ruthless while respectively justifying their actions either by pleading the cause of national security or the new realities of power. Our heroes are somewhere in the middle, well-intentioned but increasingly struggling to contain the “machine” which once served them. Most interesting of all is a terrorist group, Vigilance, who articulate the proper concerns we should all have about the way this surveillance is pervading our lives, but who unfortunately share the ruthlessness of the government and the criminal agency: this is TV and the debate is played out with gunfights rather than reasoning.

It’s not clear at this stage (as the programme nears the end of its third series) whether in fact it’s going to have much to contribute to public debate, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the present moment is how little the questions it raises are being discussed in any political forum, despite the renewed profile given them by Edward Snowden.

Snowden’s revelations caused most of the large data collecting businesses (Google, Microsoft etc) to discuss for a few days what kind of disclosure they would routinely have to make to the NSA. This seemed like an exercise in damage limitation, but in truth the damage was done. Google chairman Eric Schmidt, admittedly in another context, once suggested that if you had nothing to hide privacy was a non-issue, which only demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what’s at stake: nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship both with government and business.
We’ve also seen in the last day or so a landmark decision by the European Court against Google, asserting that whatever else it might think, Google remains subject to European privacy laws. This isn’t a simple issue: some have argued that Google searches only make it easier to find information that’s already somehow in the public domain, and that we should not have a right to mould our own public profiles. Again I think this misses the point. The way information is being collected and used is unprecedented, and we do need to have a very public debate about the limits to which it can be used.

We also need to be aware that the collection mechanisms themselves are not necessarily neutral. Jemima Kiss, commenting in The Guardian, made the point that Facebook mediates our social relations in order to extract information which might be commercially useful. This echoes Bryan Appleyard’s argument in his book The Brain is Wider than the Sky, that automated phone answering systems, with their cascades of menu choices, are designed to make us machine-readable.

We are it seems quite blithely, blindly participating in a very large experiment. Google and others are offering us a form of augmented intelligence, in return for being able to sell the same root personal or behavioural data to others, who in theory can then sell more effectively to us. In a sense we are willingly making ourselves cyborgs (albeit by carrying the technology rather than having it embedded in our bodies). For the moment I don’t doubt Google’s good intentions, but the point of the European court ruling is to insist on the maintenance of checks and balances to ensure this level of trust is not abused in the future, either commercially or by government. It would be comforting if Google seemed willing to acknowledge the viability of these concerns, rather than dismissing them.

Until recently we have acceded to the idea of government because it offered some clear benefits (security, more efficient marshalling of infrastructure resources, and so on). Government systems themselves have evolved, most obviously as democratic systems, to ensure they remain responsive to the needs and interests of the greater part of the population they exist to serve.

There’s been some discussion recently about increasing public disaffection with government, with some major business figures suggesting that this would be a good moment for business to step into the breach. That seems to me naïve about the nature of our political disaffection, let alone the capability of business organisations to adapt as they would have to in order to fill the vacuum. This naivety seems evident in the continuing argument over GM products (as in food, rather than cars). Many seem to think that it’s an argument about science, about the safety of genetically modified crops, but that’s not the point at all. It’s about whether we want to grant intellectual property in something as fundamental as grain to a commercial organisation.

In other words, do we want grant ownership of fundamental assets which until now have been held in common (even if they’ve not been free) to businesses, which as they currently conceive themselves, exist to serve the interests of a much narrower constituency than any government (ie their shareholders)? As our digital and real lives become more closely entwined, the same question must be asked of the internet and software service giants.

It’s a reflection of how far things have already gone that the answer is unlikely to be a simple yes or no, but at the very least we need to ensure that we have some options, commercial and non-commercial, in how we proceed. This is another reason why the work on open, freely licensed digital assets, is so important.

I’m aware that I haven’t really addressed the questions at the end of my last blog, but then it seemed important to say something about privacy and public interest before coming to consider the changing pressures on ownership, which all being well will be the subject of my next blog.

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