Thursday, November 23, 2006

Negotiating the Future of Data Surveillance

The Telegraph today has an article on the state of surveillance today. While perhaps lacking in deep philosphical insights, it does do a decent job of listing the multiplicity and ubiquity of ways in which we are not just tracked, but preserved throughout all our activities - for example, pictures video of journeys being kept for 6 years.

Perhaps I've had a change of heart; perhaps merely trying to stick a foot in the ground and say "no" to data collection is the wrong way to get things to change. Progress sweeps all aside, it seems, and far better to influence what seems inevitable than to try to obstruct it.

Whether we live in a "police society" or not, we certainly have arrived at an information society, in which our daily lives are encapsulated as 0s and 1s. Considering the chances of getting some kind of bottom-up encryption/privacy scheme in place (a la "DRM for the citizen") are immensely slim, I think it's time we faced up to the realities of pervasive information.

"Pervasive" is an important word. Privacy isn't about obscurity, but about 2 other things. Firstly, it relates to the idea of some choice, or limitation of who knows what about us. We're happy to give information to supermarkets in exchange for "money off" (although I suspect that's an illusion). The problem comes when the information we think as being safely in the hands of one organisation magically (via, oh, law, or simple agreement to co-operate with governments, etc.) lands in the lap of someone we didn't really think would have access to it.

Of course, that's not true of all information. Certainly, there is probably more information - usually that which isn't involved in private transactions and, as such, isn't "exchangeable" for discounts, etc - that we would prefer no-one to collect. Should people know how many times we each have sex, for instance? From a "social welfare" point of view, perhaps this could be an indicator for the health of a relationship - particularly important if we decide that children must be looked after by loving parents.

(Note that this is different to actively encouraging, or forcing certain behaviour - that would be "fascist" indeed. The act of monitoring is encouragement enough - passive, non-interventionist, yet still effective. One cannot even say that this is the behaviour of a "Nanny" state, as their is a distinction between "supervision" and "deterrent monitoring".)

So we need to start considering, in force, how better to work with government (and, to a lesser extent, businesses) over un'warranted' data exchange. The demand for mor "efficient" services is real - whether in service processing, or in crime, etc. But at the moment, the citizen (or subject, if you like) is on the back foot, and the only dissenting voices are those which decry ever-increasing surveillance of information through government channels.

But maybe the future is compromise. A "deal". Something along the lines of.. "we, as citizens, need data exchange for this, and we don't mind you doing that so long as a) it's thoroughly accountable, and b) you really don't use data for that."

ID Cards are a good, multi-purpose example. We concentrate so much on the bad that arguments for the "good" use of data get crushed as well - but these good purposes are also mostly inevitable - this is the world we have.

The path, then, to having voluntary, controlled and accountable data-services (rather than the forces, and less transparent "hand-me-down" approaches currently being installed) is to negotiate, to enter into a deal-making situation.

Sure the idea of "good" and "bad" is going to be subjective, and vary across individuals. But that's the nature of democracy. Debate, discourse, involvement - these are the things that we need to ensure that the ever-increasing mountain of data doesn't just slip into the hands of those at the top without question. In a way, being in the debate is more important than simply having a "moral" point of view. At the moment, we're not even in that debate.

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