“Everything you say or do can and will be used against you, at any point in the far future when the context and agreeableness of what you said or did has changed dramatically.” With the analog surveillance of our parents, everything was caught in the context of its time. The digital surveillance of our children saves everything for later use against them.
It’s a reality for our digital children so horrible, that not even Nineteen Eighty-Four managed to think of it. In the analog surveillance world, where people are put under surveillance only after they’ve been identified as suspects of a crime, everything we said and did was transient. If Winston’s telescreen missed him doing something bad, then it had missed the moment and Winston was safe.
The analog surveillance was transient for two reasons: one, it was assumed that all surveillance was people watching other people, and two, that nobody would have the capacity of instantly finding keywords in the past twenty years of somebody’s conversations. In the analog world of our parents, that would mean somebody would need to actually listen to twenty years’ worth of tape recordings, which would in turn take sixty years (as we only work 8 out of 24 hours). In the digital world of our children, surveillance agencies type a few words to get automatic transcripts of the saved-forever surveillance-of-everybody up on screen in realtime as they type the keywords – not just from one person’s conversation, but from everybody’s. (This isn’t even exaggerating; this was reality in or about 2010 with the GCHQ-NSA XKEYSCORE program.)
In the world of our analog parents, surveillance was only a thing at the specific time it was active, which was when you were under individual and concrete suspicion of a specific, already-committed, and serious crime.
In the world of our digital children, surveillance can be retroactively activated for any reason or no reason, with the net effect that everybody is under surveillance for everything they have ever done or said.
We should tell people as it has become instead; “anything you say or do can be used against you, for any reason or no reason, at any point in the future”.
The current generation has utterly failed to preserve the presumption of innocence, as it applies to surveillance, in the shift from our analog parents to our digital children.
This subtle addition – that everything is recorded for later use against you – amplifies the horrors of the previous aspects of surveillance by orders of magnitude.
Consider somebody asking you where you were on the evening of March 13, 1992. You would, at best, have a vague idea of what you did that year. (“Let’s see… I remember my military service started on March 3 of that year… and the first week was a tough boot camp in freezing winter forest… so I was probably… back at barracks after the first week, having the first military theory class of something? Or maybe that date was a Saturday or Sunday, in which case I’d be on weekend leave?” That’s about the maximum precision your memory can produce for twenty-five years past.)
However, when confronted with hard data on what you did, the people confronting you will have an utter and complete upper hand, because you simply can’t refute it. “You were in this room and said these words, according to our data transcript. These other people were also in the same room. We have to assume what you said was communicated with the intention for them to hear. What do you have to say for yourself?”
It doesn’t have to be 25 years ago. A few months back would be sufficient for most memories to be not very detailed anymore.
To illustrate further: consider that the NSA is known to store copies even of all encrypted correspondence today, on the assumption that even if it’s not breakable today, it will probably be so in the future. Consider what you’re communicating encrypted today — in text, voice, or video — can be used against you in twenty years. You probably don’t even know half of it, because the window of acceptable behavior will have shifted in ways we cannot predict, as it always does. In the 1950s, it was completely socially acceptable to drop disparaging remarks about some minorities in society, which would socially ostracize you today. Other minorities are still okay to disparage, but might not be in the future.
When you’re listening to somebody talking from fifty years ago, they were talking in the context of their time, maybe even with the best of intentions by today’s standards. Yet, we could judge them harshly for their words interpreted by today’s context — today’s completely different context.
Our digital children will face exactly this scenario, because everything they do and say can and will be used against them, at any point in the future. It should not be this way. They should have every right to enjoy Analog Equivalent Privacy Rights.
This article was previously published at Private Internet Access..