The Age of Surveillance

Increasingly, the Age of Information has become the Age of Surveillance.

In a recent Guardian op-ed, imprisoned Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning refers to a program called Inside Threat which the U.S. government set up in the wake of her disclosures. Monitoring targets for signs of disloyalty, the program has reportedly placed up to “100,000 military and civilian employees and contractors” under what it calls, euphemistically “continuous evaluation.”

As Manning points out, there is evidence that organizations suffer measurable declines in innovation and productivity when employees fear that they are being watched. When that employer happens to be the American government “that fear – of surveillance, public humiliation, warrants, arrest, trial, exorbitant legal fees and imprisonment – is orders of magnitude higher.”

Questions about the dangers of maintaining the enlarged surveillance powers of modern democracies have never been more urgent. The intrusiveness of the so-called Five Eyes countries into the world’s digital traffic has reached a scale and level of sophistication that is rarely appreciated by the general public.

Instead of searching for a needle in a haystack, cheap storage and extremely fast computers allow modern spy agencies to “capture the haystack” – and sift through everything for suspicious patterns.

This ever-expanding security state costs a staggering amount of money to maintain. According to the Washington Post, more than 1,000 government agents and 2,000 private companies perform sensitive government surveillance at 17,000 locations and 33 buildings in Washington DC alone.

The information gathered is safeguarded at a cost of US$10 billion annually – out of a US$81 billion budget for national intelligence.

Frighteningly, even these Orwellian arrangements will soon seem outmoded. The National Security Agency is building a data farm in Utah with 100,000 square feet of high performance computers. According to William Binney, the NSA’s former technical director, now turned whistleblower, this centre can process five zettabytes of data – the equivalent of 1,250 billion DVDs.

Binney says this would allow the agency to “store at least something on the order of 100 years’ worth of the worldwide communications, phones and emails” with “plenty of space left over to do any kind of parallel processing to try to break codes.” Its electricity bill alone is reportedly US$40 million a year.

The governments most responsible for the rise of the modern security state have also become more secretive. Between 2001 and 2004, for example, the U.S. government nearly tripled the number of documents deemed worthy of classification, from 8 million to 23 million, and dropped the number of declassified documents from 100 million to just 29 million. (The annual cost of managing just this part of the national security apparatus is US$7 billion.)

Consequently, while citizens of several of the world’s most advanced democracies live under unprecedented levels of surveillance, they know less and less about what is being done in their name.

Should people outside these countries care? Should anyone who isn’t using the Internet for nefarious purposes worry about the loss of privacy?

One answer to both questions may suggest itself from the behaviour of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO whose fortune is based on our willingness to share private information without being concerned about how it is stored, analyzed and monetized.

In 2013, when a local developer threatened to market an adjoining property as being next door to his, Zuckerberg spent US$30 million buying up all his neighbour’s homes in order to maintain his own privacy.

His response is instructive. Anyone who uses email, cloud storage, digital banking or streaming services has a vested interest in maintaining privacy in our information age – unless they are willing to share all such information with complete strangers.

The rapid rise and ever-expanding reach of global surveillance is everybody’s problem.

Editorial from Stabroek News