Big Brother 2.0: James McQuivey on the coming Surveillance Society

I recently came across James McQuivey’s blog Big Brother 2.0, which seems to be a launch-pad for his forthcoming book: Big Brother 2.0: Why We Should Become a Surveillance Society. His thesis appears to be that the coming “surveillance society” is inevitable, so we might as well embrace it and shape it to benefit society. From his book proposal:

The spiraling spread of technologies that sensor, read, and relay everyday motions and activities of people and things creates a scenario even beyond that depicted by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four — something I call a surveillance society. Thanks to Orwell, we fear the surveillance society and fight its ever-increasing intrusion into our lives. But we are wrong: not only should we not fear a surveillance society, we should embrace it. Our market economies require a steady diet of information — preferably correct information delivered in a timely manner. Never before has the collection, transmission, and delivery of that information been possible on the scale that it is now. Properly used, the free flow of this information will perform miracles, unclogging road traffic, setting more efficient prices for Jell-O, and even preventing diseases. Improperly used, well, we just better make sure it’s properly used.

Why now?
In January of 2003 the ACLU issued a comprehensive report entitled Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: The Growth of an American Surveillance Society. It’s a lovely report, very well done. In it, the ACLU describes the surveillance society as a “continuing assault on our privacy,” and warns that “too many people still do not understand the danger, do not grasp just how radical an increase in surveillance by both the government and private sector is becoming possible….” Their goal is to “build a system of law that can chain [the monster].”

The ACLU is right — surveillance capabilities are increasing daily. But they’re wrong about this being a monster. This wave of surveillance is something we welcome, something we want, and is the logical next step for a society as wired (and wireless) as ours. Big Brother 2.0 must be written to explain why and how the surveillance society should be built.

Why this book?
Technology has led us to a predicament unique to history. We can now continuously monitor and track things ranging from a superstar’s pet poodle to your blood sugar levels. The technologies are getting cheaper and better every day. Meanwhile the average person has developed a technology comfort level never before seen. Computers, the Internet, wireless phones — the commonness of all of these things makes technology programs that would have seemed like Buck Rogers ten years ago into old news today. Then consider the fact that threats to our personal safety require stricter identification standards and that our economy is riddled with underperforming stocks and retirement accounts.

It is time to make sense of it all, harness the potential of technology to solve many of our problems and give us a good grip on many others. What I propose will remove millions of dollars of waste from the economy, will provide greater safety in public spaces, and can even prevent health emergencies. But only if we let it.

The best way for me to frame my general disagreement with McQuivey’s thesis is to quote my review of Daniel Solove’s The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age:

…Solove, an associate law professor at George Washington University Law School, argues that our common conceptualization of the privacy problem as “Big Brother” – some all-knowing, constantly vigilant government entity that regulates every aspect of our lives through constant and total surveillance – fails to account for the new threats to personal privacy in our information age. It is not the all-seeing eye of “Big Brother” that most threatens personal privacy, Solove argues, but a world that is beginning to resemble Kafka’s vision in The Trial.

In Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, the character Joseph K. awakens one morning to discover that he is under arrest for an unspecified crime. Instead of being taken into custody, Joseph spends the remainder of the story in a futile attempt to discover the nature of the charges and his fate. Joseph finds no answer except that a vast, perplexing and bureaucratic court system has apparently assembled a detailed dossier on him, which remains secret and beyond his reach. In the end, Joseph is seized in the middle of the night and executed. The Trial captures the sense of helplessness, frustration, and vulnerability one experiences when a large bureaucratic organization has control over a vast dossier of details about one’s life.

…The problem, as Joseph K. discovered, is that we are almost entirely powerless against these vast bureaucracies amassing these digital dossiers and scrutinizing our lives. Solove’s comprehensive study of privacy law reveals that the legal system has failed to respond to the growing Kafkaesque threats to personal privacy. Tort laws, for example, are designed to respond to specific invasions by individual wrongdoers, a non-applicable standard since many privacy infringements have become diffuse and systematic, created not by a single perpetrator, but by a combination of agents, often without malicious intent. Similarly, the concern over digital dossiers spans the entire information economy, making the narrowly written federal statutes mostly ineffective to protect against the assortment of parties involved in the amassment of personal information. Overall, our legal protections against privacy infringements remain rooted in Orwellian conceptions of privacy – the surveillance of intimate secrets through overt invasions of privacy.

McQuivey’s hope of harnassing some positive aspect of our growing “Surveillance Society” (as he calls it) ignores Solove’s more accurate conceptualization of the contemporary threat to privacy: The new threats to privacy do not emerge from a centralized surveillance program recording our intimate secrets, but rather the accumulation and aggregation of our daily activities and habits – the minutiae of our public lives – by a vast, nameless and unseen network of organizations.

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