In a recent CNN article Bruce Schneier, security technologist and author, argues that “the internet Is A Surveillance State”.
He claims that:
“our surveillance state is efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell”
“this isn’t something the free market can fix. We consumers have no choice in the matter. All the major companies that provide us with Internet services are interested in tracking us.”
“In today’s world, governments and corporations are working together to keep things that way. Governments are happy to use the data corporations collect — occasionally demanding that they collect more and save it longer — to spy on us. And corporations are happy to buy data from governments.”
Bruce Schneier correctly identifies the danger and immorality of governments being able to force private enterprises to hand over data they have on individuals, but I would argue that the term ‘surveillance state’, as most people understand it, cannot be applied to the Internet and to entities like Google and facebook.
If the Internet’s a surveillance state, then it’s a rather odd one because it doesn’t seek to prevent certain behaviors or to punish me. It’s also a rather impotent one because it has no power over me; it can’t use force against me to prevent me from taking certain actions or to punish me for actions I have taken. No armed men are going to turn up at my house, take me away and lock me in a prison cell for not doing something Google or facebook wanted me to do. Unlike governments, of course, who routinely lock people up for not paying taxes or smoking the wrong kind of plant.
Sure facebook, Google et al have a tonne of information about what I do on the Internet, what I like and what I search for, but for as long as my interactions with them remain voluntary it’s really not a big deal. The day Google and facebook start threatening me with violence for not clicking on their ads is the day I get worried.
I’ve been surfing the web for over a decade. No doubt many thousands (perhaps even millions) of companies have information about my activities on the web, but I really can’t think of any significant negative impacts this has had on my life. Not a single thing. All anyone’s tried to do is sell me stuff. Well, ads can be irksome on websites, but, hey, that’s why someone created ad-blocker. Works a treat. The free market came up with a solution for those who wish to view web pages without ads. Job done.
We really don’t need to worry about Google and facebook because our interactions with them are voluntary. Sure, they seem to have a presence all over the web at the moment but that’s just the way it is right now. And most people seem to be okay with that. When the day comes when most people aren’t, for whatever reasons, then things will inevitably change. Google and facebook are making a tonne of money because a huge number of people value what they do. It’s as simple as that.
The people we really need to worry about are the one’s whom our interactions with aren’t voluntary. Governments. And it’s government surveillance states that George Orwell was positing. A Orwellian surveillance state watches you and controls you in order to make you comply with the ideology of those in power. Those watching and controlling you wish to erase you as an individual and overwrite you with their ideology in the belief that this will make the world a better place. Those in power judge you in accordance with their ideology and deem that you need correcting.
Google and facebook, unlike governments, don’t track you in order to change you, punish you, steal from you or force you to behave in a certain way. Quite the opposite in fact, they aim only to decipher what things you like or need so businesses who have got products or services that match your tastes/needs can put their ads in front of your eyes when you’re surfing the web – and therefore Google and facebook can make money. Not particularly scary, perhaps just very slightly inconvenient or annoying sometimes, heck, sometimes even useful – and all those who strongly object can simply walk away from Google and facebook. There are search engines that allow you to search anonymously, there are tools that block tracking cookies, there are even tools that will disguise your IP address; and they’re all free. All those who strongly object to facebook’s terms of service can simply abstain from using their product.
We need only worry about those groups of people who are tracking us for the purpose of locking us up or stealing from us for not complying with their rules (i.e. governments) and not those whose benign goal is to place adverts in front of our eyes.