Yes, You Are Being Watched


At Saturday’s ‘War on the Internet’ forum in Melbourne, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam gave a curious formulation of what he called the "psychology of surveillance". According to Ludlam, people go through three stages when reacting to being spied on:

1. I’m not interesting enough to surveil.
2. I’m not doing anything wrong!
3. I’m angry and want to do something about this.

The key message of the afternoon was that in order to get your friends and colleagues to do something about the expanding surveillance state, the issue needs to be personalised. In other words, to show that people who are ostensibly not interesting or criminal enough to be surveilled are still at risk — not just the Julian Assanges of the world.

But what about the obvious fourth category that really forms the battleground for our so-called "war"?

Almost everyone frequently does something "illegal" on the internet: file sharing or other types of copyright infringement. It’s impossible to ignore the constant flagrant privacy breaches of companies like Facebook, Sony and the like. Everyone knows at least at a basic level that they’re not alone on the internet; how many times have you seen an ad targeted at your exact suburb when browsing? So category three should instead read: I know very well I’m being surveilled, but I act as if I’m not and continue to download with impunity or give away my data.

First things first: we really are being surveilled. Senator Ludlam has recently spoken out about the extraordinary increase in the number of warrants issued to collect "telecommunications data" — metadata that includes IP address logs, geolocation data, URLs and the like — under the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act. These warrants are much easier to obtain than traditional wiretaps.

Consequently, 243,631 such warrants were issued from July 2010 to June 2011 by a range of government departments including the Fisheries Management Authority and Victorian Taxi Directorate as well as traditional law enforcement. By contrast, only 3488 "traditional" intercept warrants were issued over the same period (pdf).

We’re also individually opting in for more surveillance than ever through social media. Privacy advocate Eben Moglen put it this way:

"The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record: he has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age."

"Because he harnessed Friday night. That is, everybody needs to get laid and he turned it into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to a remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal. Namely, I will give you free web hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time".

And it works.

The interesting thing is Moglen’s solution:

"It shouldn’t be allowed. That’s a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at ‘spying all the time’. They are not technically innovative. They depend upon an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn’t any other business model for them. This is bad. I’m not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We’re technologists, we should fix it."

Surveillance is increasingly used by the state to intervene in protection of property and intellectual property. SOPA and PIPA are the peak of that trend, but rather than being a state initiative, Congress is playing sheriff for Hollywood. Similarly, the Australian Government is pressuring ISPs to police users on the copyright complex’s behalf — either to retain data on its customers for retrospective policing or to negotiate with the TV and record companies to squash torrenting of copyrighted content.

To paraphrase Crikey journalist Bernard Keane, author of the eponymous War on the Internet e-book, intervention like this is the government playing favourites and propping up failing industries who were too slow to figure out how to make money online. Google, Apple and their mates are doing very well, thankyou. If they had provided content at a reasonable price, in a quality format, when consumers wanted it, then they wouldn’t be in the position they are — failing.

Is this what Moglen was talking about when he said "We should fix it"? Quite the opposite, because we run into the same problem: Apple’s iTunes store is laden with DRM, is vertically integrated to only run on their software which only runs on their hardware which can only be bought from their store and so on. At any rate you still end up paying $11 for an album. Likewise, the digital distribution centres for video games, Valve’s Steam service and EA’s Origin, are engaged in a constant pissing contest over who gets to distribute the top AAA titles, still at the store price of $90 a pop. Even if these terms are more amenable, they’re still falling into the same trap the internet was meant to overcome: distribution monopolies that collect all of your data, credit cards and so on.

What we end up with is what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls the "privatisation of the general intellect".

"How did Bill Gates become the richest man in America? His wealth has nothing to do with Microsoft producing good software at lower prices than its competitors, or ‘exploiting’ its workers more successfully (Microsoft pays its intellectual workers a relatively high salary). Millions of people still buy Microsoft software because Microsoft has imposed itself as an almost universal standard, practically monopolising the field, as one embodiment of what Marx called the ‘general intellect’, by which he meant collective knowledge in all its forms, from science to practical knowhow. Gates effectively privatised part of the general intellect and became rich by appropriating the rent that followed."

If we think about the the internet as a form of "rentier state" — a digital Saudi Arabia — we end up with an answer to our original question: Why do people know they’re being surveilled, but continue as if they weren’t? Facebook provides the services we want — web hosting, PHP dongles and interconnectedness — and there’s no real competitor thanks to Zuckerberg’s prime mover advantage, so he gets the rent in the form of our data. TV rents go to Netflix.

Even piracy is in a similar position — although you don’t have to pay for the content, you do give your data to Google and your advertising eyeballs to the Pirate Bay. Like the Saudi petro-bourgeoise, who want the oil cash but have to curry favour in response, we want the services so we pay the rents, and some of that goes to the state in the form of compromises between companies like Microsoft and intelligence agencies.

Moglen’s "fix it" solution is not to reduce the costs, because under Apple, EA and the other monopolies the rent will always be too damn high. The real solution is free software — to eliminate the rent altogether. Ubuntu and Debian: open source, free, secure operating systems. Diaspora*: a distributed, open-source social network without advertising or data collection. Freedombox: open source, secure personal networking. Desura: free, open source game distribution.

Intellectual property reform aside, free software is a good place to start combating the influence of the surveillance rentier state. From there we can move to the final stage in Senator Ludlam’s progression — and really get angry.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.