Evgeny Morozov on the threats of data surveillance

Evgeny Morozov, a valuable and constant critic of evovling capitalism, raises several questions about the fantasies spun by Silicon Valley in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the pervasive monitoring of life by the National Security Agency.

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.

The collapse of government management of throughput as a common good has been an enduring feature of the digital age, and one encouraged by the very people who now promise to lift all threats hovering over the monitored public, or “consumers.” When we became primarily consumers — users of goods, rather than citizens who, among other things, shopped — evolving economic opportunity passed to technologists who would rather treat their innovations as purely positive, even though technology always carries benefits and disadvantages in at least equal measure. Why should we trust anyone without demanding a thorough understanding of what they are doing to our lives, their motivations and the rewards?

But we’ve sold off our infrastructure and now we recognize implicitly — as anyone who has been paying attention for the past 20 years should have known — that the communication channel is owned by the operator. We should insist that the content of communication is not part and parcel of the channel that transmits it. We need to own our ideas and preferences.

Sometimes, I start to wonder if Snowden isn’t a plant or dupe himself, a convenient fool who unveiled much less than he thinks he did. The fact that he “escaped” to Russia of all places and now sends his missives, thoughtful though he may be, seems unlikely, improbable. When I first broke the news that the NSA had interfered with public cryptography standards back in the 1990s, the NSA made itself very clear, via direct communication and surveillance, including monitoring my home and work phone numbers — a government insider warned me explicitly about this — that it was displeased. But it also maintained, as it does today, that such interference was necessary, in that case because the National Institute of Standards and Technology wasn’t capable of putting cryptography into place without expert assistance from the NSA.

We’ve got plenty of experts vying for influence over our lives. Enough, even when we benefit from their participation. We should be debating more energetically than ever before the rationales and assumptions that are reshaping our polity into only an economy, in which personal power is apportioned by existing economic means other than the quality of our ideas in the natural competition among citizens for a voice in the process.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.