The wrong meme ?

After our ‘We lost the war’ lecture, I was part of a smaller group that stood around and discussed what we had just been talking about. One of the people there was Rena Tangens, a longtime privacy activist from Bielefeld whose work I much admire. And while she said that she agreed with a lot of our analysis, she just could not get over the ‘we have lost the war’ theme. She claimed that by titling our talk the way we did, we called on people to accept their fate, effectively working against the efforts of those that still fight for privacy. Others echoed the same sentiment, and over the days that followed, more than one person said “Even when it is true, you probably shouldn’t be saying it”.

Now I don’t buy that. I don’t believe in political activism that depends on a mass of people that are not told the truth, or in an activist leadership that limits access to truthful analysis when they feel it will negatively affect the commoner’s ability to rally for the cause. And even if I did believe in that, I think the hacker community is a little too smart for that anyway.

It is time we acknowledge that the war for privacy has been essentially lost, and that all remaining fights, worthwhile or not, are over minimal delays in the implementation of the various mechanisms of control. Maybe there was once a window of opportunity where we could have affected enough of the public opinion to make a difference. But this window is gone, the technologies have been built, and they will be used. Even if we got a majority of the population in a majority of the countries on earth to care starting today, it would not be enough.

And we need to say this, because it was really our point from the beginning: these technologies are so powerful that once they are built, no amount of regulations will hinder their use for the benefit of whoever is in power. If you place cameras and license plate recognition capability above all the roads for a system to tax trucks, the system will be used to keep track of all vehicles a few years later, no matter how hard the politicians promised that that won’t happen.

Being in charge of a country can lead to significant paranoia. And it is this paranoia that nameless control-freak bureaucrats feed on. A healthy society would just tell its leadership to get over it. But in societies where the population itself is spiraling into an ever deeper fear-based psychosis, this is not likely to happen. And so by allowing the leadership to see more and more of the evil things that some subset of the population is doing, the bureaucrats are offering the crack pipe: the bright glow of ‘secret intelligence’ will ease the worries. But only for a very short time, after which they’ll just get more frightened of all the things they might not know.

Unless you believe in the upcoming arrival of the intergalactic cavalry, I think you have to accept that privacy is gone, and that it will not come back in any foreseeable future. Nameless people mining and evaluating historical and live data from our call records, our internet activity, our bank records, all our logistics and our personal whereabouts will de-facto be in power for the short and medium term. As for the long term: I’m not sure. But I do know that the type of semi-clandestine grassroots movement that has always been needed to overthrow a government is far more difficult to set up than it has ever been.

Time to figure out where we stand in the post-privacy era.

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