In my latest Guardian column, ‘Cybersecurity’ begins with integrity, not surveillance, I try to make sense of the argument against surveillance. Is mass surveillance bad because it doesn’t catch “bad guys” or because it is immoral? There’s a parallel to torture — even if you can find places where torture would work to get you some useful information, it would still be immoral. Likewise, I’ve come to realize that the “it doesn’t work” argument isn’t one that I want to support anymore, because even if mass surveillance did work, it would still be bad.
One thing that parenting has taught me is that surveillance and experimentation are hard to reconcile. My daughter is learning, and learning often consists of making mistakes constructively. There are times when she is working right at the limits of her abilities – drawing or dancing or writing or singing or building – and she catches me watching her and gets this look of mingled embarrassment and exasperation, and then she changes back to some task where she has more mastery. No one – not even a small child – likes to look foolish in front of other people.
Putting whole populations – the whole human species – under continuous, total surveillance is a profoundly immoral act, no matter whether it works or not. There no longer is a meaningful distinction between the digital world and the physical world. Your public transit rides, your love notes, your working notes and your letters home from your journeys are now part of the global mesh of electronic communications. The inability to live and love, to experiment and err, without oversight, is wrong because it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t catch bad guys.
Everyone from Orwell to Trotsky recognised that control over information means control over society. On the eve of the November Revolution, Trotsky ordered the Red Guard to seize control over the post and telegraph offices. I mentioned this to Jacob Appelbaum, who also works on many spy-resistant information security tools, like Tor (The Onion Router, a privacy and anonymity tool for browsing the web), and he said, “A revolutionary act today is making sure that no one can ever seize control over the network.”