Nicolas Engel

Building french idea(ls).

Is electronic mass surveillance becoming the norm?

Photo of Amr Miqdadi from Pexels

In the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden’s revelations brought to light the existence of electronic mass surveillance in the United States. Beyond the American example, it was the whole of the democracies erected as paragons of virtue in the face of authoritarian regimes that were questioned in their foundation — individual liberties.

This event is symbolic because it took place during the presidency of Barack Obama, leader of the free world and symbol of progressivism. The latter, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for “his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” has always refused to grant Edward Snowden a pardon despite repeated calls from freedom groups, especially at the end of his term.

Literary works such as George Orwell’s 1984 or more recently V for Vendetta only foreshadowed this phenomenon, which was brought about by technological progress: a disembodied technological surveillance that made it possible to direct crowds without provoking political revolution. The Chinese government implemented it as early as 2018, as illustrated by this Australian report. Nothing surprising for an authoritarian regime, you might say? Certainly China is known for its liberticidal errors. The fact remains that monitoring the individuals of a population of more than 1.393 billion inhabitants is evidence of overcoming the technological barrier. This is a technological performance in itself despite its liberticidal objective.

Are democracies safe from this drift?

Would universal suffrage be the bulwark against this kind of drift? At the very least, counter-powers seem to be more effective. The end of the NSA’s cell phone surveillance program declared illegal by the US Supreme Court in 2020 appears at first glance to be a victory for Snowden. But if we look closer, the ambition to collect all data from cell phones generated such a volume of data that their exploitation was counterproductive by the NSA’s own admission. The end of the monitoring program is more a testament to the failure of its implementation than a return to compliance with the legal framework.

This trend is no longer only political but has infiltrated the whole of society, even into the private sphere. The tools condition uses and private companies are no more virtuous.

As early as 2010, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook (the parent company of the Instagram and Whatsapp applications) had recognized that social networks had changed the “social norm” with respect to privacy. A particularly eloquent documentary, The Great Hack available on Netflix, attests to the extent to which personal data is aggregated and made intelligible so that it can be more easily exploited.

Cambridge Analytica has demonstrated the ability to manipulate individuals by exposing deceptive content to a minority in order to sway undecided public opinion in a pre-determined direction. The 2016 U.S. elections are a milestone in political history. It was the first time that a private company has overturned a democratic process, establishing the prevalence of economic profit at the expense of the public interest.

This cycle culminated on July 24, 2019 in Facebook’s condemnation to pay $5 billion by the US government due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This amount considered a record for a fine is however to be put into perspective:

Would the markets have sacrificed individual liberties on the hotel of profit? No, they were brutally pragmatic.

The economic models based on advertising like Google or Facebook are known to everyone. In order to increase their profits, these companies draw up individual profiles aimed at maximizing the profitability of the ads displayed. In a world where productivity is elevated to an art, logic is relentless. The more the ads correspond to the tastes and aspirations of individuals, the more sales are likely to be realized.

If a platform is free, then you are the product.

This is the ambiguity of a search engine like Google or the social network Facebook. Allowing a democratization of information and knowledge that the myth of the Tower of Babel had prefigured, these platforms combine a mission of general interest with private economic objectives. The result is a dangerous cohabitation. It is as easy to access statistical data provided by the OECD as it is to consult a site with conspiratorial overtones. But are their respective values comparable?

Asking individuals to verify the sources of the content they view is unrealistic. Our societies place a premium on instantaneous information and new content. This leads to infobesity — literally a surplus of available information — which loses value as their recency or accessibility diminishes. In this context, the effort perceived by the citizen to verify the accuracy of his information appears discouraging.

Beyond the ability to verify one’s sources, accessing quality information and protecting it from commercial exploitation requires a barrier to entry in the form of a paid solution. It is therefore easier to access clear-cut positions on a global pandemic than to consult scientific analyses whose approach leaves room for reasoned doubt. In this context, why would one pay several hundred dollars a year to ensure a service available “free of charge”?

This question is all the more important since the tools condition the uses. Gmail has become the corollary of the Postal service for many. Changing providers and habits in a society that harasses its individuals with new features requires an effort that many people do not perceive the interest. And even when informed citizens understand the importance of being in control of their data, it remains the technological barrier. Migrating a conversation history of emails, contacts, documents is not easily achievable. Very often, this change leads to regressions in usage or even loss of content. Many people then prefer to voluntarily limit their digital usage so that their data is not exploited.

Faced with these platforms that favor the digitalization and intrusion of our personal information as well as the mass of data available about us, electronic surveillance has lost its immoral character.

Law-abiding citizens tend to think that if they have nothing to hide, there is no point in protecting their personal data. In the end, the risk seems acceptable to them. To quote Edward Snowden:

“To say that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is to say that you don’t care about freedom of expression because you have nothing to say.”

Edward Snowden

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