Surveillance is an Algorithm

A Golden Age of Surveillance

The intelligence agencies are living in a golden age of surveillance. They’ve never had it so good! Their life is so cushy now compared to a couple of decades ago. They now have total information.

They can see everything: they’ve got face recognition algorithms looking through cameras on the streets, optical recognition cameras at bridges, tunnels and traffic lights. They can track movements, transactions, who’s having lunch with who, who’s sleeping with who. They can see everything!

To complain that end-to-end encryption is crippling them? It’s like having a couple of missing pixels in a large display. They have the rest of the display! They’ve never had it so good. They didn’t have this stuff 20 years ago. — Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP encryption, to the Guardian. PGP creator Phil Zimmermann: ‘Intelligence agencies have never had it so good’.

Background: Zimmerman was responding to this recent development in England:

On Monday David Cameron managed a rare political treble: he proposed a policy that is draconian, stupid and economically destructive.

The prime minister made comments widely interpreted as proposing a ban on end-to-end encryption in messages – the technology that protects online communications, shopping, banking, personal data and more.

“[I]n our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?”, the prime minister asked rhetorically.

To most people in a supposed liberal democracy, the answer would surely be “yes”: the right to privacy runs right in parallel to our right for free expression. If you can’t say something to a friend or family member without the fear the government, your neighbour or your boss will overhear, your free expression is deeply curtailed.

This means that even in principle Cameron’s approach is darkly paradoxical: the attack on Paris was an attack on free expression – but it’s the government that intends to land the killing blow.

New to encryption? Get started with Lifehackers Beginner’s Guide to Encryption.

Have that under your belt? Move on to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Surveillance Self-Defense Guide.

Need some background on that? Read EFF’s Game Plan for Ending Global Mass Surveillance.

Michael Cervieri

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)