Trusting in our new security state

June 19, 2013

Big data? No. Vast data, enormous data, unimaginably colossal data ties our world together. Some have said it also ties us down, since departments like the National Security Agency are combing through a part of our huge reservoir for intelligence on foreigners who might threaten the U.S. Yet this behavior is now the status quo, one that will not go away, nor diminish. It’s a doleful one if you deem it an open invitation to 1984-style tyranny, or an exhilarating one if you see a world of ever-expanding knowledge and opportunity.

Regardless, data culture is growing at a stupefying rate. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, and the rate itself is increasing. We humans, ordinary people going about our business, are creating most of that data, because we have come to need it to shop, to bank, to access benefits, to be part of a health service, to educate our children, to be secure, to play games, to form and maintain modern friendships, to find partners… in other words, to live in the world.

To live outside of this networked world we would need to live in isolation, growing and hunting your own food without utilities. Or we would have undergone a catastrophe, the kind of thing contemporary dystopian fiction likes to conjure up. Since few of us want to try the first and none of us wish to be victims of the second, we’re stuck in the Net.

We’re stuck, and we have to adapt to it — as we have adapted to the other technologies that we have invented and produced. We have adapted to the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. We’ve adapted to the telephone and the television. We must now adapt to a world where public and private centers of power and authority know or can discover wads of information on us. And we must become comfortable with the reality that it is information we have half-unconsciously handed over.

To adapt, we must trust. We have to trust the state, the government, the politicians, the businesses, the bureaucracies, the police, the security forces, the journalists and, yes, ourselves.

We’ve become used to believing that trust in public figures and institutions is a dwindling commodity, a precipitous falling away fromwhat we used to have so much of, at least in some things and some people. How do we acquire it again?

We need to realize that trust is a relationship. Trust needs work, from us. We need to hold the powers that be to realistic account, which means we must understand what is reasonable to ask of them, and how much we are prepared to engage, or give up, or pay, in order to get it.

But we can’t trust in ignorance, or we are simply being naïve. Most of us can’t handle too much complexity in fields we don’t understand — and when we hear that in a couple of years global data will amount to a zettabyte, which is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, and that in three years global Web traffic will reach 1.3 zettabytes a year, we tune out, and leave it to others.

Yet we need to somehow grasp the size of the data or we become immensity’s victims: we need to pioneer something like an Open Digital University, a resource available to all which will take us through at least the lower slopes of understanding of what our modern, connected universe is — building on courses that our kids get at school.

Further, since our democratic and political systems depend on representatives and officials who know how to navigate the Internet, they have to be trained in the ways of digital democracy — with the accent on the second word. They must know not just what the great banks of information, public and private, have on us. They must also assure us that this information is safeguarded, open to inspection and as transparent as possible. They have to be our guardians and pathfinders in this world.

So must the news media. As the late James Carey wrote, “In the Fourth Estate view of journalism, journalists would serve as agents of the public in checking an inherently abusive government.” But the media, too — as the phone hacking scandal in the UK amply demonstrates — can abuse the public in its search for information. The philosopher Onora O’Neill, in her Reith Lectures given over a year ago, argued that the media was constantly demanding transparency from every institution but itself. It’s time that was reversed.

Less obviously but much more worrying, the great engines of our informational and social world (Google, Facebook, etc.) could currently or soon have at least exabytes (10006) of information on us. This means that we have to know much more about them: secrecy in corporations as powerful as these can’t continue.

And we must create the office, as dignified and powerful as that of a Supreme Court judge, of a Digital Ombudsman, one who, with a large staff, is empowered on behalf of the public to investigate and report on the nature of the informational ecosystem that surrounds us; how it is increasing; what its increase brings; what we are giving to which institutions in the way of data on ourselves and those we know. Such an official must become integrated into our society and in our politics.

Trusting ourselves means we have to wise up to how much we are enmeshed in the Net; what gains this gives; what losses it demands. It means supporting those institutions that are prepared to hold to account not just others, but themselves. It means holding them to the promises and the mechanisms of oversight. There’s no way out of feeling trapped in the coils of a net than by actively ensuring that it isn’t choking you.

PHOTO: Passengers watch a television screen broadcasting news on Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), on a train in Hong Kong June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Bobby Yip


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For a contrast between how a Brit (John Lloyd) and an American (Peggy Noonan) see this issue, go to Peggy Noonan’s article: ns.html . Same blood, dramatically different take. The American…Let freedom ring.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

The mere existence of a technology certainly does not mean the general population must submit to those in power doing whatever they please with that technology. We have had chemical plants able to produce a wide variety of chemicals for a long time. But we do not tolerate the powerful using chemical weapons on us, do we? We do not tolerate forcible drugging of our population to make them docile to the wealthy and powerful. Why should we?

Likewise, simply because the powerful have discovered oppressive uses for communications technology does not mean we must tolerate a police State. The police State we currently are developing, and sadly have already somewhat developed, is by no means inevitable. Ask Joseph Goebbels. He would have loved having the technological tools the NSA has.

We have politicians and police officials who cannot imagine that they are wrong to do what they want to do. This is nothing new. Humanity has suffered under these folks for many thousands of years. The real problem we have is a political machine that bears only a superficial resemblance to a representative republic, let alone a democracy. It simply offers no choices, permits no choices, is as doctrinaire as China, and has found a new set of toys to go with its “cause”, which is repression of all politically “incorrect” thought, policy, and political choices. And the domination of Israel over southwestern Asia at all costs to the people of North America.

If our rulers do not pull back from the police state, it will end as all police states in history have. In ruins, death, destruction and the obliteration of its ruling class. Let’s hope they can read history and have less hubris than they appear to have.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

It’s interesting how different the British perspective on freedom & privacy is compared to the US and much of Europe. I assumed the title of this article was a joke, but instead it’s the message that Americans should trust the government that’s a joke. This country was founded by refusing to supplicate to arbitrary and capricious authority. As surely as we pass our genes on to our children in this country, so too do we pass our love of freedom and liberty.

Posted by Obliviate | Report as abusive

The author muses “we must create a office, as dignified and powerful as that of a Supreme Court judge, of a Digital Ombudsman, one who, with a large staff, is empowered on behalf of the public to investigate and report on the nature of the informational ecosystem that surrounds us; how it is increasing; what its increase brings; what we are giving to which institutions in the way of data on ourselves and those we know.”

Fine; I nominate Edward Snowden.
Perhaps he could recruit that “large staff” from Wikkileaks.

Posted by MediocreFred | Report as abusive

“To adapt, we must trust.” Remember that we must verify BEFORE we trust and how can we verify the truthfulness of programs that are secret? Secret courts, secret warrants (when they bother with those pesky little details), secret committees, everything and anything “classified” – kind of hard to verify in this case.

Sounds like the old statement of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” – and we know how that has worked out, don’t we?

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

You really hit a bad chord on this with Americans John Lloyd…as a Brit, perhaps this experience sheds light on another significant cultural difference between the US and much of the rest of the world. The US really has been a markedly different place for centuries…hopefully we don’t lose that now…the natural state of humanity is the progression of oppression by the powerful who control institutions, not individual freedom. Individual freedom must be continuously and aggressively defended for it to exist, much less progress.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

Lets put this into perspective,Mr Lloyd is one Brit out of 62 million,therefor to claim his personal opinion is representative of the British in general is idiotic.That would be like supposing all Americans to be passive because the majority of corporations that invade the privacy of citizens around the world are infact American corporations!.Or observing all American citizens to be docile just because the citizens of Boston recently thanked the police for denying them their right to the freedom of association,whilst they hunted down the Boston marathon bomber!.America land of the free pffffft.

Posted by kingdig | Report as abusive

In God We Trust. Not men and women. Not government. Our U.S. Constitution may be dead, but God is not. The systems in place are not to enable freedom of thought and life choices. But we have complete freedom from God, our creator, and freedom from whatever happens in this godless world through Jesus Christ.

Even before the technocracy was in place God came first in some of our lives. Nothing there has changed. Expect evil in this world. But turn your attention and heart to God.

One more thought, there is life without wireless, and even without internet. There is love and fun and work without wireless, and even without the internet. Some of us know because we were here before the wireless and internet took over lives, and risked lives to control freak leaders and unprecedented radiofrequency radiation exposures.

Posted by SuReed | Report as abusive

The hope: We can still work for awareness towards dismantling them. The building of controlling/monitoring systems for energy use, communications, health care and national spying on citizens for so-called security went into place without any open discussion. Socialists and communists have dreamed of this kind of technocracy. This is not a free man or woman’s vision. This is not a free people’s dream. And a sleeping freedom-loving people can awake. I pray they will.

Posted by SuReed | Report as abusive