🇬🇧7🔻Massive Surveillance, Can It Be Fighted? Yes (Maybe) With DLT
Analysis About the Opposition Proposals to ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ and the Role of Distributed Ledger Technology
Introduction and Current State of Affairs
I borrow the term coined in 2018 by Shoshana Zuboff, ‘Capitalism of Surveillance’ (henceforth CDS), to describe the condition for which, according to the definition she provides, we are in the presence of:
- a new economic order that uses human experience as raw material for ‘secret’ commercial practices of extraction, forecasting and sale;
- a ‘parasitic’ economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture for behavioural change;
- the scenario underlying the economics of surveillance.
Zuboff in her definition inserts other 5 points that make the concept explicit: in my opinion they are prospective consequences of the CDS and not articulations of the ‘How it work’, so I will deal with them later.
The two words in quotes instead are adjectives, subjectively inserted by Zuboff: I think that from an objective point of view ‘competitive’ and ‘competitive’ are more appropriate.
At the same time, we must not forget the ‘massive surveillance’ exercised by governments for their own institutional purposes, through the intelligence systems. I also include it in the CDS for the reasons already explained in previous posts, in summary, because it is impossible to do intelligence activities aimed at national security without using and delegating most of the technological functions (and related budgets) to private contractors, themselves actors of the CDS. The two activities are inextricably linked: given the technological nature of the socio-economic interactions in place, without the CDS actors to support the institutional intelligence could not do their work. If politically it’s imposed to them to be efficient, the only way to achieve the mission is through mixture (differently articulated), like the one currently in place.
Finally, ethics has no place in this area. At a private level it has individual relevance: each actor in the CDS evaluates, according to his own convenience (his own weights), if and how to give it value. At the public level it is a political issue, and here again each decision-maker, according to his or her own convenience, acts accordingly.
The obvious is the usual: technology is neutral and its ethicality depends on how it is used. The current methods of use have led to the CDS which, in order to be contained, needs effective and efficient opposition frameworks to preserve individual (digital) rights.
The Government Policy Solution
Paraphrasing Edward Luttwak, the frame of regulation in general is 15 years behind the technology: it is not exactly so, because the sectoral differentiation is remarkable, but the assertion can be taken as true on average.
The reasons are well known, and the consequences of digitization on ethics and standards were explained by Lawrence Lessig 20 years ago: the results are under the eyes of everyone with the continued run-up that regulations such as CCAP and GDPR (not to mention those on cryptoeconomy) must sustain (to think) to be in line with technology.
So it is useless to hope in the legislator: it is not able, and will be less and less able, to cope with the consequences of CDS. Moreover, the politician has a short-blanket if he wants to be re-elected: if on the one hand he has to comply with the possible requests of public opinion on the subject of digital-right; on the other hand, the same applicant demands security; also the bureaucracy must be provided with technological powers to be able to carry out its service to the citizen: we considered before, the reasons why national security cannot but be part of the CDS.
The Market Solution
Luttwak solves everything as always, hoping the self-regulating of the free market (I steal your data and behavior, you discover it and you no longer buy the service, I adapt to keep the lights on) but, in this case, there is a problem and that is 15 years. Even assuming that individual shrewd in terms of digital-right (or the organizations they refer to for their protection) is more proactive than the legislator, in terms of resilience, towards the progress of the CDS (do we make 5 years?) however the time of asymmetry is high.
In the time of asymmetry not only do the actors of the CDS make profits at the expense of the individual, and in a way that the individual is not aware of being ‘the product’, but also they progress in a continuum, both technological and lobbying, aimed at counteracting the very resilience of digital-rights and, subsequently, of laws. Market competitiveness then turns into ‘rogue competitiveness’, or ‘rogue capitalism’ as defined by Zuboff.
So even believing in the utopia that the rules of the market heal everything in this case hope is in vain. The asymmetry can never be filled because of its very nature, that is, because of the type of competitive advantage that in the definition phase led Zuboff (as we said before and with her world view) to complete the definition of the CDS with the other 5 points:
- a pirate mutation of capitalism characterized by concentrations of wealth, knowledge and power unprecedented in the history of humanity;
- a major threat to human nature in the 21st century, just as industrial capitalism was to nature in the 19th and 20th centuries;
- the origin of a new instrumentalizing power that imposes its dominion over society and challenges market democracy;
- a movement that seeks to impose a new collective order based on absolute security;
- an expropriation of fundamental human rights that comes from above: the subversion of the sovereignty of the people.
The Solution of Activism
Digital activism is now 30 years old, it is deserving but so far it has served very little purpose. David Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, James E. Cartwright, Anonymus (to name the most famous and, with regard to the last one, when he worked in this sense) have made the difference and have served with their leaks to open the Pandora’s box: activism has not. It is true that if we compare it with other comparable forms, for example the environmental one dating back to the early 70s of the twentieth century, most likely it was still in its youth. It is also true that, with respect to the environment and non-digital civil rights, the immateriality of the theme and its high degree of technicality make it difficult to be perceived as suppressed. The sensation, however, is that, in addition to its historical maturity, it lacks above all of the capacity for social involvement: it is given on the increase, at least in the most sensitive countries, but it languishes when compared to what is at stake and what, above all, may be there.
From another point of view, digital activism always intervenes when the horse has bolted, with technological proposals or suggestions that, at best, are to be backdated by at least 5 years compared to the factual reality to the activism itself unknown.
The side of the technology is always the worst, demonstrating the still crude workmanship of the movement: the myriad of tools proposed, with purposes of individual protection are, in most cases, outdated, and/or artisan and poorly functioning, and/or difficult to manage for the average user and/or determine in the user a deprivation of essential services (for the counter-measures adopted by those to whom they are addressed) to make their use irritating.
The theme of asymmetry is proposed again, but in this case it should be tackled proactively, offensively, and not suffered: taking as models the actions of environmental media awareness of, for example, Green Peace diring the second half of the twentieth century could be a way that nobody seems (want) to go. What seems, and is, is the existence of organizations with a defined role in the establishment, which carry out their specific task according to and following rules established by others. As was said, however, deserving but ineffective for the community and for the individual, apart from the leaks on which, however, we can be relied on occasionally and with the sole purpose of information.
The Zuboff Solution
Zuboff’s analyses have served to bring to light, disseminate and structure the problems as much as the solution she has proposed leaves us bewildered.
To sum up, she proposes the domestication of the CDS through forms of collective action, assisted and supported by technologically ‘enlightened’ (proactive) regulators (and ethical) which, in turn, it is hoped will be supported in equally ‘enlightened’ company leaders.
Now, first of all, it has been seen that forms of collective action, for now, did not bring brilliant results: who should be the proactive enlightened ones, in a 30-year-old oblivion during which such personalities we have seen few of them (and the few have even ended up in prison)? Second, where can one find enlightened corporate leaders who embrace teh domestication? Zuboff cites Tim Cook as an example, motivating his choice with Apple’s attitude towards the privacy of its clients. The choice seems a bit difficult to support, considering that when there was a choice between profit and customer protection, in China(in Italian) Tim Cook had no doubts on which side to take; moreover, if we can believe in an outward protection of the Apple ecosystem (obviously where this does not collide too much with profit) nothing is said about the privacy of customers within the ecosystem itself, as the problems of Siri (highlighted by leaks) demonstrate.
Assuming absurdly that A) an alien of the planet XYY falls to earth and takes the trouble to play the role of enlightened and proactive people’s leader; B) Jeff Bezos, suddenly blinding flash on the road to Damascus, preaches the respect of digital-right, becoming their paladin; in all cases what we do with the needs imposed on institutional intelligence? Do they progressively stop doing their job?
The scenario is unrealizable both for the absence, potential to date, of active actors and for adaptation to a feasible reality.
The Solution ‘Dismantle the Monopoly’!
This is the point of view that emerges from an interesting and recent article by Cory Doctorow. In short, he makes the following reasoning: the economic crisis of the ’30s of the last century led to the dismemberment of financial monopolies as a measure to prevent the problem from being repeated in the USA as in other countries. That led to actors specialized in activities and controlled, in their connections, by an antitrust discipline: the solution lasted (and worked) in the USA until the era of Ronald Regan who, in turn, began the progressive dismantling of the antitrust discipline, following his own convictions of economic and industrial policy.
Doctorow affirms that being the Big One the main players of the CDS the path to follow is the one taken in the second half of the 1930s. The theoretical reasoning is not without logic: if Google’s algorithm manages searches according to my behavior and the same company analyzes my behavior (through the data in its possession, those of advertisers and those bought by third parties) to profile my behavior we are in the presence of an aberration. It could have solution in forcing Google to a functional fractionation in independent units: but the ‘if’ are many.
First of all, all the actions in this sense taken by European agencies (and not) have had no consequences in the global configuration of the Big One for now. Then, we are no longer in the 80s: currently the technology and its combination with off-shore articulations allow regulatory circumventions so antitrust would need investigative powers, technical and not, with a pervasiveness currently unthinkable at the policy and ‘politically corrected’ levels. Finally, the power of the monopolies due to its digital nature is now much more penetrating, invasive, underhand, extended and interpenetrating in the daily social than the financial power of the ’30s; the economic power of the current monopolists, both singular and combined (as would be expected in case of a dismantling action), is greater than that of many states so, in case of blackmail, many of them should capitulate to not be paralyzed. From this point of view, let’s momentarily forget about the capitalisation/GDP ratio and think about the functional roles that Amazon assumed in the distribution during the pandemic lockdowns, or Facebook and Google have covered about the remote social relationships in the same period.
The scenario solution proposed by Doctorow therefore theoretically has its own logic but is difficult to implement and does not address the problem of national security needs.
With this topic we return to technique. The combination of blockchain, smart-contract, AI solutions, in their infinite articulations and interactions, already allow three basic things in relation to the CDS: being able to provide forms of automatic ‘data-dividend’, i.e. revenue for the user deriving from the use of personal data; contractual agreements approved in advance with automatic execution, deriving from the acceptance of the parts of the conditions; execution ledgers that cannot be changed later, i.e. extreme difficulty of posthumous tampering with the activity carried out.
These three characteristics are not to be underestimated in their factual importance:
- they can be applied together and disjointed, giving rise to a combination of solutions in the products that are developed on them;
- they are present in solutions on the market, they are not hypotheses or hopes;
- they constitute one of the bases of the techno-social think-thanks that are developing, at international level, the macro-protocol called WEB 3.0 (containing technological processes and technologies of different nature), therefore they have valence and technological validation of verifiable product.
We return consequently to the thought expressed by Luttwak, modifying it in the sense that, in this case, the market through the technological innovation triggers a technical (and not opinion) down-up action against the concluding behaviors that have given rise to the massive surveillance and CDS. Also in this case the ‘if’ and ‘but’ exist and have a relevant weight in the overall assessment.
If technology and products exist and are ready to use, it is not said that they are massively usable, therefore useful for the purpose. Currently DLT, like the rest of the components of WEB 3.0 is in its infancy so it suffers, like all the niches, from specific basic lacks:
- internal interoperability: it is developed on different protocols that have yet to find a common colloquial denominator between them. It is not important to have a dApp that accepts all the different protocols, as now happens, it is important to develop a protocol that accepts all the different dApps (and their reference blockchain);
- external interoperability: the bridges with WEB 2.0/1.0 are limited and farraginous and lack the point of contact with the existing cyberspace on which people interact in everyday life;
- it is not user-friendly: the user interfaces are for the moment developed by a niche of technical users for a niche of technical users (most of the time they are components of the same tribe that cover different roles). If the goal is to combat mass surveillance the grammar must be understandable to the masses;
- there are no data and data-sets within the blockchain to extend the DLT (and WEB 3.0 connected) beyond the aspect that now acts as main-drive, the financial;
so two consequences:
- the bulk of the investments and development efforts are poured into products of a financial nature, being those with higher returns;
- there is no awareness, neither in the individual nor in those who should represent him/her (politically and in activism), about the potential of the instrument for the objective of which I’am writing.
I repeat that the reference technology is young (10 years in its genesis version, much less in its general application perspective) and must mature in all senses: however Gartner, in the recent annual review of the Hyper Cycle, places the ‘Algorithmic Trust’ among the 5 mega-trends. Therefore it would be a shame to miss the opportunity because, at the end of the story, it is the DLT combined with WEB 3.0 in its entirety that can give a turning point to the problem, if compared with the other solutions proposed.
It is a fact, and not a utopia; it does not have to chase anyone: WEB 3.0, besides DLT with its sub-components, is composed by innovations that have all the characteristics of paradigm shift in their sector. It will be in case those who suffer it as disruption to have to chase, and not the contrary; it does not have to reckon with the hope in the fate and/or in the availability of others; it does not have to engage in long term battles of which the results are not glimpsed.
The working examples already exist (only as a representative example, in the field of digital identity, social networks, cadastral data, health care, texting…): simply, and systematically, the phenomenon must manifest itself in ways and manners that are useful for the purpose, so those who design in this sense are attracted, because they have a return, and those who should convey its use and make use of it are first aware of its existence and, second, accompanied and facilitated to use it.
Even the problem of national security could be overcome: in theory, the normative meanings of privacy on the pervasiveness of the various intelligence and police services are contractual terms (of the citizen-state social contract) automatable according to the if-then logic, typical of smart-contract. In Estonia this happens as well as the project framework of DCEP, the Chinese CBDC, provides solutions in this sense: these are realities and not bizarre utopias or hopes.
CBDCs will be a powerful driver of use and diffusion and will constitute solid tests and development platforms. They are not designed and aimed at the purchase and arbitrage of speculative tokens or NFT or even to be used by a small niche of specialists: their purpose is to intervene, with the pervasiveness of cash, in people’s everyday life, therefore also to automatically regulate small and large contracts that define everyone’s daily life.
Let’s see, confident.
Blog logo by Cathy Moser
This is an English adaptation of a neuronal Italian/English AI translation by DeepL