The Future of Power

A world with technologists off the sidelines.

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Here is how we are beginning: companies we sign up with online are basing their entire business model on collecting troves of personally identifying data about us, and then selling it. The ones that aren’t selling us out are storing troves of information about us, and those troves are repeatedly stolen by criminals. Instead of moving to protect us, laws are being developed to excuse those companies from responsibility. Law enforcement itself is engaging in an unchecked campaign of universal profiling and data gathering, and government agencies don’t appear to be any better at safeguarding our privacy than companies.

Household consumer devices which peer into your home and record your behaviors are under constant attack, inevitably bowing to sophisticated aggressors against whom it would be dangerous to retaliate.

Each of these potential adversaries is backed by deep pockets, with large teams of round-the-clock talent who have access to advanced technology.

On the opposing side, the task of our common defense has been heroically lead so far by a small number of national leaders like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Those few individuals who have made their home on the forefront of digital privacy defense labor at the margins, viewed by the public as exotics (at best).

It is in this daily crossfire the public finds itself friendless and bewildered, feeling powerless and understandably resigned.

The result is a staggering and increasingly consequential parade of vulnerability; we are being monitored, sniffed, attacked, penetrated, compromised and owned into a widespread posture of passive capitulation, with implications that are ruinous for our future.

Technologists must begin to create networks in their local communities to advocate for greater understanding of the need for digital privacy. We advocates need not be top cryptographers or famously outspoken security experts; in fact, over-reliance on those few individuals who are doing the heaviest lifting contributes to our current state of affairs. Those to whom the threat is most apparent are burdened with the earliest responsibility. Mo Bitar, creator of the privacy-enabled note-taking app Standard Notes recently wrote:

“Privacy isn’t just about you or me, and what immediate returns we may see on our investment. It’s about the future of power.” — Mo Bitar

As we contemplate the infancy of our lives in a digital civilization, Bitar argues, we must arrive at precepts on which to build that civilization. “There must be a bill of rights, with namely one right: that of privacy. This is the equivalent of free speech,” Bitar told me in an email. “The data revolution… is us understanding the best way to go about designing systems of governance of our online lives. We are not revolting against any evil entities, but rather the predisposition of large entities to be evil. This is an unbiased assessment of entities at scale: they become autonomous and destructive with size.”

The time for willing technologists to transform into technoactivists and to step forward in their communities is now. We must create spaces, find our people, and put those people in front of mayors, legislators, high school classes and small businesses with clear-eyed stories of technology’s impact on their goals and dreams. We should arrive with vetted materials that unambiguously speak to the widest experience of those in the audience. To do that most effectively, the skill we must cultivate foremost is that of being skilled listeners. An action list of such an effort may look something like this:

  • Listen to the needs of our neighbors; build bridges wherever we encounter gaps.
  • Meet in person with other like-minded technoactivists to talk about what we are hearing.
  • Beware of topics that are reliably divisive, favoring instead the amplification of settled best practices and widely held principles.
  • Pick something relevant to actually do, that improves the understanding and outcomes of technological efforts in your community.
  • Align yourselves with other local partners, as well as national ones like the EFF.

In the coming months, important decisions will be made that will set directions for the principles of the free and open internet, for encryption technology, for surveillance, technology education; the list goes on and on. Technoactivists must be present at the discussion to ensure the directions are true.

To say the opportunity and importance is “unprecedented” is to downplay it. The precedents are in fact there: you will find the same sort of precept-establishing exercises in the creation of new societies, governments, countries and civilizations. That’s what we are talking about.

“We are creating a new world — will we make the same mistakes we’ve made countless times through history in forming it?” Bitar asked me. “It’s in the hands of techies to carry our future.”

Seth Hall is a technologist in San Diego working on techLEAD. techLEAD fosters informed engagement on technological issues of our time. Learn more at techleadsd.org.

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