Mutually Assured Snooping

What would it be like if privacy, as we know it, ceased to exist?

One of our contemporary cultural narratives is of heroic mathematicians and programmers who, for now, appear to have carved out a space invisible to the state and other powerful interests through the innovation of encryption. But perhaps this arms race is a temporary state of affairs. Maybe the long-term equilibrium at the end of this contest is omniveillance — roughly a situation in which everything of importance is observed and recorded, viewable by others.

David Brin is a writer who believes this future is inevitable. Do we maintain our freedoms by staying one step ahead of the surveilling powers, being better at hiding than they are at seeking? In Brin’s view, this approach isn’t sustainable.

Hiding will not work. Sure, protect your passwords as a short term, practical matter. But over the long term only one thing will keep you free. Aggressively, militantly empowering yourself and your neighbors to see!

Supporting this hunch is an asymmetry that stands out to me: while surveillance technology is becoming ever more powerful, hard to detect and ubiquitous, the observable physical footprint a person leaves on the world is at least as large as it ever was, and shows no sign of shrinking.

Encryption might currently allow temporary hiding places in the digital realm, but at least for now we still live in meatspace and soon the spies will overtake our ability to evade them here.

Our near-future will be see a proliferation of unobtrusive sensors. Some will be descendants of technology we’re already familiar with, like car plate readers and CCTV networks linked to machine vision software. Others are just coming into view over the sci-fi horizon; autonomous drone mosquitos, smell sensors, gene-hacked spy plants.

Eventually these systems, and new ones we haven’t imagined yet, will be writing data to logs that can be data-mined arbitrarily far into the future.

Why would it happen if no one wants it?

We’ll get to omniveillance even if most people would prefer to live in a different kind of world, because of a collective action problem. While you may bristle at the idea of being observed yourself, my bet is that you will strongly desire to use this kind of technology to your own advantage.

Initially this might mean almost costlessly observing your own property and neighbourhood in case of theft or vandalism. Later it might mean watching your local police department or politicians in case of brutality or corruption.

The nascent omniveillance infrastructure might get its start when a future MySpyCorp extends an offer: “You can access our large, and growing pool of observed data either by paying a subscription fee, or (our most popular plan) by having your devices log their data to it.”

Perhaps multiple such datastores will exist. Over time competing stores will be incentivised to merge their data together to offer their customers a spotlight capable of shining on a bigger part of the world.

Flash forward a few years, the fantastically successful MySpyCorp is involved in a scandal. Maybe they’re been found to be censoring data pertaining to members of their management, business associates or friends in politics.

Whatever the details, eventually the dangers of having this kind of data under the control of trusted gatekeepers will be felt urgently enough that there will be a demand for this kind of data delivered in a trustless, decentralised form.

Manufacturers of surveillance hardware who are alert to this opportunity will create the open omniveillance backbone. And because their products are designed to interface seamlessly with it, they will reap the market’s rewards.

Eventually we’re at a point where I can find out anything you’ve done, through a conveniently browsable interface. Is this state of affairs necessarily a dystopian nightmare? Brin doesn’t think so.

Hope through ‘sousveillance’

The idea of sousveillance contains the key to understanding Brin’s hope for a humane, transparent society. Transparent in the sense that access to information illuminates in all directions.

The term “sousveillance”, coined by Steve Mann, stems from the contrasting French words sur, meaning “above”, and sous, meaning “below”, i.e. “surveillance” denotes the “eye-in-the-sky” watching from above, whereas “sousveillance” denotes bringing the camera or other means of observation down to human level, either physically (mounting cameras on people rather than on buildings), or hierarchically (ordinary people doing the watching, rather than higher authorities or architectures doing the watching).

If everyone is able to watch everyone else, then the least powerful can watch the most powerful, who have more to lose. We know from today’s high profile scandals that powerful figures can be lowed very quickly if enough people become convinced they’ve behaved unacceptably.

The discipline of Mutually Assured Snooping

When an act of snooping is itself subject to watching eyes, and indelibly etched into the public record, is it still worth it? Brin believes that under these conditions, a strong live-and-let-live norm may emerge — Don’t snoop without Good Reason if you don’t want to be subject to the same treatment yourself.

Perhaps there’d be an attitude that, under normal circumstances, it’s not okay to access data on a person gathered from places traditionally regarded as private (e.g. within their own home). It’s possible that the threshold for justifiable snooping would move in concert with the perceived power of a person in society. For instance, assuming the nation state lasts that long, politicians might reasonably expect scrutiny at all times and places.


How widespread is preference falsification? Do all members of a community secretly do that one taboo thing, each believing they’re the only one? If they do, perhaps their mental health would benefit if they knew they were not alone in that, and no longer had to maintain the secret. The journey towards omniveillance seems likely to trigger any such latent preference cascades that might exist. To me this sounds like a good thing.

On the other hand perhaps it really is just you that does that one weird thing. Depending on who else is in your community, your life could become very unpleasant if your preferences became widely known. More generally it’s conceivable that omniveillance could strengthen social control in some contexts.

On the upside that might mean better social cohesion and trust. On the downside it could mean increased persecution of outliers, dissidents and dissenters — more pressure to conform. While the inmates of Bentham’s panopticon modify their behaviour because of the presence of a distinct class of unseen observers, everyone in an omniveillance society is a potential victim of the tyranny of the aggregate.

I don’t think we can confidently cheer or jeer about the likely effects of an omniveillance society on human wellbeing yet. Like a Rorschach test, Maybe one’s gut feeling about the outcomes of radical transparency will mirror their general affective stance towards other people.

Epistemic Effort: I thought about this on-and-off for three months. I spoke to three smart friends about technological challenges and likely social/political effects. I read papers on emerging decentralised alibi technology and surveillance theory. I spent about four hours writing different versions of this post. Everything written here is highly speculative.

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