My new Locus column is “It’s Time to Short Surveillance and Go Long on Freedom,” which starts by observing that Barack Obama’s legacy includes a beautifully operationalized, professional and terrifying surveillance apparatus, which Donald Trump inherits as he assumes office and makes ready to make good on his promise to deport millions of Americans and place Muslims under continuous surveillance.
But Trump supporters shouldn’t get too happy about this: after all, the billions Trump will pour into expanding America’s surveillance apparatus will be inherited by his successor — who may well be a Democrat who uses it for their own political ends.
The expansion of surveillance in the Trump era will create more and more people with direct experience of the perils of mass surveillance — and thus a larger audience for tools, products and services to help them safeguard their privacy. Privacy and surveillance are classic public health problems: because the downsides are so distant from the activity, it’s hard for us to make good judgments about when and how we should trade our privacy away. This is the same pattern that makes smoking so hard to combat.
Just as with smoking, surveillance will eventually reach the point of “peak indifference” — when the number of people who want to do something only goes up and up. That moment has already passed, and the Trump years will only accelerate the opposition to surveillance.
How can you short the surveillance economy and go long on technological freedom? Personally, you can peruse the easy-to-follow ‘‘Surveillance Self Defense’’ documentation maintained (in 11 languages!) by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://ssd.eff.org), and get your friends to do the same (remember, privacy is a team sport – it doesn’t matter if you keep your messages secure if your correspondents leave them in plain sight).
But if you’re minded to think about new businesses and business models, get thinking about how you might offer services to protect people from the backdoored, hyper-invasive Internet of Things. What about a Facebook login tool that scrapes all your feeds by clicking everything and downloading it all, then letting you choose what you see without letting Facebook know, depriving Facebook of information about the choices you make and the places you are when you make them? That’ll get you sued by Facebook under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but who knows, maybe a peak-indifference judge will find in your favor. Facebook has a lot of users who like the utility of hanging out with their friends and will increasingly be terrified of the consequences of hemorrhaging their data directly into Mark Zuckerberg’s remorseless, gaping maw.
Think of how you could jailbreak Philips lightbulbs and HP printers and ‘‘smart’’ TVs and games consoles and cable boxes and load them with software that treats your personal data as if it was precious lifeblood, not the consequence-free exhalations of your digital metabolism. That’ll get you sued under Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and again, we’ll have to see whether a peak-indifference judge will decide that’s what Congress meant when they passed the DMCA in 1998. But that’s what limited liability companies are for, right?
Most importantly, you short the surveillance economy by investing in the activist groups that are fighting to make it legally safe to command your devices to stop stabbing you in the back and start guarding your back. That’s groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org; disclosure, I consult to, but don’t earn money from, the EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and many, many others.
We’ve got a rough four years ahead of us, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. But the only thing that could make the privacy catastrophes of the coming years even worse is if we let them go to waste.
It’s Time to Short Surveillance and Go Long on Freedom [Cory Doctorow/Locus Magazine]