The Days of Security Through Banality Are Over

In the wake of the present privacy scandals, you have the return of the familiar argument in which one side of the table says, “I’m not worried by domestic spying; I have nothing to hide,” and the other side of the table tries to express how that’s bullshit.

I posit that the security often expressed as “I have nothing to hide” was never about having nothing to hide.  As the other side of the table reiterates over and over again, everyone has something to hide; with the bewildering number of laws in a modern bureaucratic state, everyone’s a criminal.  And everyone who’s not a saint has, in fact, done things they’re ashamed of.

But people have, at least until recently, been broadly correct to feel secure none the less.  Not because they literally have nothing to hide, but because the things they have to hide are fundamentally banal.  Nothing more or less than everyone else has to hide.  And since there is nothing exceptional about their personal shames, and obviously the government isn’t going to reveal everyone’s shames, they’re extremely unlikely to be targeted.  No more sense in worrying about your things to hide being exposed than to worry about lightning.

There’s a strong element of privilege in there, too, by the way.  I don’t think you ever heard many lower-class black men from urban environments express with confidence that of course the government would never ferret out some stupid banal secret and use it against them.  This is the confidence of those who believe that not only are their secrets banal, they are also not being targeted for harassment.

And, for at least the white middle class and upwards, this used to be largely true.  Since everyone has tons of stuff to hide, your particular problems would get lost in a sea of similar issues, and if the government wasn’t actually out to get you, you weren’t at much risk.

But technology has made us much less secure.

Back in say 1980, the government simply couldn’t amass all that much information about the banal random citizen.

Back in 2000, the government could amass a lot of information about you, but couldn’t effectively distribute it and apply it.

Here in the brave new world of 2013, it’s increasingly possible for automated systems to harass you and millions of other citizens all at once, without all that expensive manpower that used to prevent widespread abuse.

As usual, the forefront of technological advancement has been pushed by the porn industry.  In the last few years, what we call “porn trolls” like Prenda Law have used the legal system for, essentially, automated blackmail.  They get the rights to defend a particular bit of copyrighted pornography that is widely pirated on the internet.  They subpoena some ISP, get a list of hundreds of thousands of people who have pirated this pornography, and send them all settlement letters for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars: enough that it’s worth the lawyers’ time, but not worthwhile for the defendants to defend themselves (not to mention the shame involved).  This wasn’t possible a few years ago!  Basically, we’re seeing technological labor savings.

Similarly, the government can now apply its knowledge of your banal little secrets in a much more efficient way. Consider a few cases:

Twenty years ago, if the government wanted to audit you, they needed to pull your physical tax returns (which itself was probably staggeringly expensive, considering the difficulties in physically filing that much paper), then have an agent read them over and look for problems, then have that agent meet you (or at least talk over the phone).  It was likely the case that each audit request cost the government hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Now, it can send an automated agent trawling through your efiles, use simple heuristics to determine whether or not you’re likely to have committed tax fraud (in the vast majority of all cases, such tax fraud is a mistake by the taxpayer), and send you an automated notice of how much it thinks you likely owe.  This probably costs the government less than $1.

Twenty years ago, if the government wanted to harass you at a border crossing, somebody had to work up a case against you (this was a relatively highly paid analyst using expensive systems), figure out more or less what they wanted to ask you about, and then send out instructions to border stations about what to look for and what to ask you once they detained you.  Again, probably hundreds or thousands of dollars per individual.

Now, the case is built largely by automated agents trawling through petabytes of data.  Identifying the subjects is also done by computer systems, flagging your passport number automatically, and even increasingly checking biometrics to locate you.  Actual humans only need to step in once you’ve already been caught, and even then, better information sharing technology can reduce their costs in questioning you.  Probably at least an order of magnitude less expensive than it used to be.

And here’s something that should discomfort you even more if you were previously of the privileged classes that didn’t need to worry about harassment very much: these automated agents are likely pretty blind to your privilege.  A quirk of modern stereotypes is that somebody who would absolutely gloss over your indiscretions if they saw you in person, because you’re “obviously” not a bad person, won’t encode his prejudices in an algorithm.  Because the algorithm is intellectual rather than visceral, and we all know we shouldn’t be prejudiced.

This is all of a piece with automated red-light cameras and radar speed detectors — the number of pretty young women who are getting traffic tickets is probably climbing astronomically.

This has all been technologically possible for years, but bureaucracies take a while to update their internal methods.  We’re just starting to see the potential of automated government harassment of citizens who would have always, in the past, been unremarkable and privileged.

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4 thoughts on “The Days of Security Through Banality Are Over

  1. Pingback: Do Foreigners Worry About Being Spied On? | Sandor at the Zoo

  2. Pingback: Privilege and “I don’t have anything to hide” | Sandor at the Zoo

  3. Pingback: The Rise of Total Enforcement | Sandor at the Zoo

  4. Pingback: The Crooked Ladder and Total Enforcement | Sandor at the Zoo

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