The surveillance society is a basket of crabs

Yesterday I was an invited panellist at the University of Vienna's celebration net:25 – 25 years since they laid a line connecting them to CERN and adopted with Europe the TCP/IP protocol for global Internet – part also of the 650th anniversary of the university.

One of the other panellists (in a different panel), Bruce Sterling, was one of the few people at the meeting not particularly worried about surveillance and the loss of privacy due to data retention.  While many of the speakers (strikingly Phil Zimmermann and Louis Pouzin) were very much worried about how to attack and roll back the problem, Sterling said that the problem was going to eliminate itself.  The NSA despite its trove of data was not helping US interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, or the Ukraine, Facebook similarly wasn't actually that good at figuring out what you wanted, and all the Internet companies hated each other and the NSA; they will just vanish like Nokia or the Stasi overnight.

He wound up repeating the metaphor "They're just a basket of crabs, tearing each other apart."

This doesn't reassure me.  Maybe it's because I know enough biology.  Well, I don't know about crabs, but I know about cockroaches.  When they are starving (like during a drought) and they can't eat, they live in a swarm and cannibalize each other.  That way, the strongest are left ready when their ordinary food comes back.

For surveillance, so long as the data is still on record, someone might use it for something.  Even if a company goes bankrupt, their data is still a corporate asset and is sold to the highest bidder to recoup the creditors' losses.  So we need either to destroy or eliminate the data (which seems increasingly unlikely), or at least we need to make it illegal and/or prohibitively expensive to use.  Waiting for companies and intelligence agencies to collapse on themselves like East Germany might be a long and painful wait with no real consequences for privacy.

Two related news stories:
Phil Zimmermann compared the fight against surveillance to the fight against slavery, in that it seemed impossible to shut slavery down because entire countries had their economies based around it, but slavery was in fact shut down.  Similarly the hereditary power of royalty in Europe.  This coal triumph is a bit more recent and directly applicable though I think.  But there's no question that China is very organised and seems to be doing OK at keeping itself stable.  Louis Pouzin said that the only hope was that a small number of small countries decided that privacy and democracy really mattered – countries small enough that the power of their citizens' information wouldn't really get them anywhere so wasn't really of value to them – and then if the countries in that small coalition really did do better somehow, more countries would be able to follow suit.  (Zimmerman has recently moved his company from the USA to Switzerland so he could assure his customers their host country had a constitution that enshrined data privacy.)

I'm not sure whether Pouzin is right, but I agree we need to look around the world and see how things are being done and what the outcomes are.  But we also need to realise that really no country is isolated, and all exist relative to each other, and all exploit the resources provided by each other.