The Privacy Act of 1974 proscribes how federal agencies can acquire and use data that can identify you, personally identifiable information (PII). In addition to many other provisions, it requires government agencies to (quoting from the website FAQs):

  • Collect only information that is relevant and necessary to carry out an agency function.
  • Maintain no secret records on you.
  • Explain, at the time the information is being collected, why it is needed and how it will be used.
  • Ensure that the records are used only for the reasons given, or seek your permission when another purpose for their use is considered necessary or desirable.
  • Allow you to find out about disclosures of your records to other agencies and persons.”

We now know that the NSA broke this law and then hid their illegal acts by classifying the documentation. Perhaps I'm naïve, but I don't think that covering up illegal acts is the purpose of classifying state secrets, at least not in the United States.

On the other hand, in the private sector, what about a company like Facebook? In his article in the London Review of Books, John Lanchester says, "Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens."

The Facebook terms and conditions (Ts & Cs) state that Facebook collects "the content and other information you provide when you use our Services" which includes everything you do on FB: your comments—even those that you type but delete before posting—what you read, what you ignore, your photos, who you connect with and how, intimate details about the devices you use to connect including WiFi/Bluetooth/GPS location, billing information for anything you buy through a Facebook link, and any inferences that their software, employees, subsidiaries, and partners can glean from that information. The Ts & Cs that you agreed to also permit Facebook to sell or give that information to anyone they like (such as data brokers like Datalogix and Acxiom) without informing you or compensating you.

Facebook steals your data
Facebook: World's greatest data collector.

On the one hand, we U.S. citizens elect our government and have strict laws governing its access to your privacy; sure, it breaks these laws, but at least it has them. On the other hand, corporations have no such restraints with use of your data because you waive your rights to play. You might say that if you don't want to give up your rights, then don't play! But is it that simple? When a product becomes so integrated into society that not clicking "agree" amounts to going off the grid (to some extent), then you have to give up more rights than might be reasonable. All credit cards, for example, have essentially the same Ts & Cs. You don't have to agree to them; you don't have to use credit cards…unless you want to buy a plane ticket (see how security responds if you try to paying cash at the gate) or rent a car.

The point is that, regardless of whether your bogeyman of choice is in the government or a corporation, he still has the potential to extort, blackmail, coerce, or control you. Is Feudalism the natural state of humanity? In a pack of wild dogs, the alpha male assumes all power, and is the only one allowed to mate.

For the vast majority of the roughly 10,000 years since people started planting crops and living in stable communities, people were ruled by feudal lords who used information to control their underlings. The United States rulebook (the Constitution) was written on a foundation of distrusting authority: checks and balances. This thing we call freedom, the freedom to choose our jobs, to mate with those willing to mate with us, to express our opinions, or to scream obscenities at sporting events. While we might get carried away with all these freedoms, we must observe that they're also fragile. You can point to dozens of countries off the top of your head who would jail me for writing this article. Some countries even jail rock bands for criticizing elected officials.

Security demands surveillance
When criminals perpetrate large scale violent crimes, the government and police will always attempt to increase surveillance in an effort to reduce the chance that it can be repeated. Of course, no elected official or police officer wants to be at the helm when there's trouble that could have been prevented. Plus, an alarmed public will encourage the government to grant increased surveillance powers from the top down.

Has there ever been anyone in a position of power who willingly yielded their control of information? Even the most benevolent executives and despots, elected or not, and even those who have yielded coercive power, have retained control of information (if you can think of a counter example, type it in the comments, I couldn't come up with one from memory or research).

The actions of the NSA show that privacy restrictions are pointless. Facebook has a written policy that they must follow by law, but so does Wells Fargo.

Whether it’s a corporation or a government body (e.g., Facebook or the NSA), if history is a guide, then we can assume that [insert bogeyman of choice here] will attempt to subvert our society to their own ends whether motivated by profit or power.

They’re watching us, so look back at them
As long as we can look back, as long as we retain the right to watch those who watch us, we have a chance to continue our experiment in democracy and our historically unique freedoms—however imperfect and limited! Astrophysicist, futurist, and science fiction author David Brin famously calls the opposite of surveillance sousveillance. He says, "We shall answer surveillance with sousveillance, aggressively insisting on our right to supervise authority, because we care less about what elites know about us than what they might do to us. Only by aggressively supervising can it be kept a servant."

If those in power have exclusive control over evidence, then they will end this historically short era of freedom.

The smart phone has revolutionized society in many ways, from increased neck injuries to opening the actions of authorities to public scrutiny. At a bare minimum, the people must retain their right to look back, to use their phones to video the use of power and share that evidence as they wish—as Brin put it so eloquently: “… in altercations with authority, what other recourse can a citizen turn to, than the Truth.” In 2013, Glik v Cunniffe, the US justice system declared that citizens have the right to record their interactions with police in public places. But this ruling is vulnerable because it was issued by an appeals court, not the US Supreme Court and the issue will be challenged again and again. Drones, for example, present another level of surveillance technology. It will be tricky.

It’s up to you
Transparency is the root of our success. Science done in the open leads to the discoveries that open fields of engineering that provide the infrastructure for science to make discoveries. Open competitive markets level the field between ultra-powerful corporations and startups. A judicial system that is independent of the executive and legislative branches of government and passes judgments in open view of the public make it possible for every citizen to be treated equally, regardless of their financial or political power.

Assuring that surveillance technology—whether cameras on smartphones, social networking sites, data analyzing AI (artificial intelligence), or whatever incredible technology that you invent—must be evenhanded. It's up to us as the people who create the technology to assure a level field between average citizens and those with inordinate power, between the could-be serfs and the would-be feudal lords. Install features that assure transparency and guarantee that no one will have a monopoly on information acquired through surveillance. When executives and marketers question these features, feign shock and question their motives. Push back. Yes, you’re paid for your time, effort, and expertise, but are your principles for sale, too? I can hear a few of us saying, “They’ll just hire someone else.” Maybe they will.

If we all carve our boundaries of decency and freedom in advance, we'll be prepared to deal with the challenges to our integrity and we might be able to keep feudalism at bay, democracy might survive, and we, as a species, might be able to continue this meandering path in the general direction of civilization. But it’s up to you, the engineers who create surveillance devices and their support systems.

Ransom Stephens is a technologist, science writer, novelist, and Raiders fan, even when his team loses.

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