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The Total Surveillance Society Approaches

This commentary appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on December 22, 2011.

We will soon reach the point where governments will have the capacity, should they wish it, to monitor, record, and permanently archive the communications and activities of their citizens from birth to death. That’s the sobering message of a new Brookings Institution report by John Villasenor, an engineering professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Within the next few years,” he writes, “it will be technically possible and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders – every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.”

The machinery for such monitoring – from intercepting electronic communications to recording images of faces and licence plates in public spaces – already exists and is rapidly improving. Yet, it is the plummeting cost of data storage that makes total surveillance a real possibility.

Consider this: The audio for all the telephone calls made by a single person over the course of one year could be recorded using roughly 3.3 gigabytes of storage space. If a country the size of Syria, for example, were to archive its entire population’s telephone calls for a year, the data storage capacity to hold all these calls would now cost approximately $2.5 million, but with steady technological improvements this cost is expected to fall to $25,000 by 2020. The same is true for video and other types of data storage. The result, writes Villasenor, is that “cost will soon be no object” for internal security services to make complete and permanent records of its citizens’ communications and activities, even for very populous countries.

Now, imagine what a resourceful and ruthless security agency might do with all these data. They would have at their disposal the equivalent of a “surveillance time machine,” an information record they could use to “retroactively eavesdrop on people in the months and years before they were designated as surveillance targets.”

Not only would the detail of communications and movements be searchable, but so would the identities of other people with whom the surveillance target communicated – and everything associated with their lives, too.

It’s a chilling vision, one in which Big Brother isn’t just watching anymore. Now, he’s remembering the past perfectly, and he’s making connections between people and events in ways that even Orwell couldn’t have imagined.

Some might dismiss this vision as a dystopian fantasy. But why wouldn’t countries with records of using every tool at their disposal to monitor their citizens also take advantage of these new surveillance and data storage capacities as they become available? And isn’t it true that even in liberal democracies with strong privacy laws, including Canada, we have also seen a gradual shrinking of private space and pressures for more ubiquitous surveillance?

The main benefit of Villasenor’s report – like that of other stylized visions of the future, including George Orwell’s – may not be its specific predictions, but rather, its ability to shock us into seeing real-time trends that might otherwise go unnoticed, including in our own society. Indeed, it speaks to the importance of a different kind of heightened vigilance: not of our fellow citizens, but of our right to remain largely hidden from the constant gaze of the state.

 

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