By Evgeny Morozov
The benefits of personal data to consumers are obvious; the costs are not, writes Evgeny Morozov
Following his revelations this year about Washington’s spying excesses, Edward Snowden now faces a growing wave of surveillance fatigue among the public – and the reason is that the National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower has revealed too many uncomfortable truths about how today’s world works.
Technical infrastructure and geopolitical power; rampant consumerism and ubiquitous surveillance; the lofty rhetoric of “internet freedom” and the sober reality of the ever-increasing internet control – all these are interconnected in ways most of us would rather not acknowledge or think about. Instead, we have focused on just one element in this long chain – state spying – but have mostly ignored all others.
But the spying debate has quickly turned narrow and unbearably technical; issues such as the soundness of US foreign policy, the ambivalent future of digital capitalism, the relocation of power from Washington and Brussels to Silicon Valley have not received due attention. But it is not just the NSA that is broken: the way we do – and pay for – our communicating today is broken as well. And it is broken for political and economic reasons, not just legal and technological ones: too many governments, strapped for cash and low on infrastructural imagination, have surrendered their communications networks to technology companies a tad too soon.
Mr Snowden created an opening for a much-needed global debate that could have highlighted many of these issues. Alas, it has never arrived. The revelations of the US’s surveillance addiction were met with a rather lacklustre, one-dimensional response. Much of this overheated rhetoric – tinged with anti-Americanism and channelled into unproductive forms of reform – has been useless. Many foreign leaders still cling to the fantasy that, if only the US would promise them a no-spy agreement, or at least stop monitoring their gadgets, the perversions revealed by Mr Snowden would disappear.
Here the politicians are making the same mistake as Mr Snowden himself, who, in his rare but thoughtful public remarks, attributes those misdeeds to the over-reach of the intelligence agencies. Ironically, even he might not be fully aware of what he has uncovered. These are not isolated instances of power abuse that can be corrected by updating laws, introducing tighter checks on spying, building more privacy tools, or making state demands to tech companies more transparent.
Of course, all those things must be done: they are the low-hanging policy fruit that we know how to reach and harvest. At the very least, such measures can create the impression that something is being done. But what good are these steps to counter the much more disturbing trend whereby our personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects – that we use?
No laws and tools will protect citizens who, inspired by the empowerment fairy tales of Silicon Valley, are rushing to become data entrepreneurs, always on the lookout for new, quicker, more profitable ways to monetise their own data – be it information about their shopping or copies of their genome. These citizens want tools for disclosing their data, not guarding it. Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service.
What eludes Mr Snowden – along with most of his detractors and supporters – is that we might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim.
This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession. So to remain relevant and have some political teeth, the surveillance debate must be linked to debates about capitalism – or risk obscurity in the highly legalistic ghetto of the privacy debate.
Other overlooked dimensions are as crucial. Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers.
Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency. What Mr Snowden has revealed is the new tension at the very foundations of modern-day capitalism and democratic life. A bit more imagination is needed to resolve it.
The writer is author of ‘To Save Everything, Click Here’