Technology researcher Evgeny Morozov, author of Net Delusion : The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, worries about that. His basic thesis is,

… the Internet is a tool that both revolutionaries and authoritarian governments can use. For all of the talk in the West about the power of the Internet to democratize societies, regimes in Iran and China are as stable and repressive as ever. Social media sites have been used there to entrench dictators and threaten dissidents, making it harder—not easier—to promote democracy.

For example, after the Information Awareness Office (IAO) was established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in January 2002, it created huge computer databases for the personal information of everyone in the United States (Total Information Awareness). This includes personal e-mails, social networks, credit card records, phone calls, medical records, and many other sources, without the need for a search warrant.

Indeed, a search warrant might be a thing of the past. Chances are, the government already has the information.

The agency was defunded, following an uproar. It is widely believed, however, that its programs (or similar programs) continue to run, under the umbrella of various other agencies, as whistleblower Edward Snowden has said.

We should keep in mind that Internet-based invasions of privacy don’t usually sound like Big Brother Is Watching You. They can be defended on a case-by-case basis. Here’s an example Morozov offers:

As both cars and roads get “smart,” they promise nearly perfect, real-time law enforcement. Instead of waiting for drivers to break the law, authorities can simply prevent the crime. Thus, a 50-mile stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Rugby is to be equipped with numerous sensors that would monitor traffic by sending signals to and from mobile phones in moving vehicles. The telecoms watchdog Ofcom envisions that such smart roads connected to a centrally controlled traffic system could automatically impose variable speed limits to smooth the flow of traffic but also direct the cars “along diverted routes to avoid the congestion and even [manage] their speed”.

Other gadgets – from smartphones to smart glasses – promise even more security and safety. In April, Apple patented technology that deploys sensors inside the smartphone to analyse if the car is moving and if the person using the phone is driving; if both conditions are met, it simply blocks the phone’s texting feature. Intel and Ford are working on Project Mobil – a face recognition system that, should it fail to recognise the face of the driver, would not only prevent the car being started but also send the picture to the car’s owner (bad news for teenagers).

Practically everyone wants fewer deaths and injuries in traffic. But do we want that at the price of allowing our car, once a proud symbol of independence and leadership (particularly for women), to be driven by the machine’s programmers? The politician, of course, is caught in  a classic dilemma: freedom vs. security. And so much is being done already without much publicity that systems can be up and running for  some time before they are broadly discussed.

So how will the new high levels of surveillance affect politics? Morozov writes,

In shifting the focus of regulation from reining in institutional and corporate malfeasance to perpetual electronic guidance of individuals, algorithmic regulation offers us a good-old technocratic utopia of politics without politics. Disagreement and conflict, under this model, are seen as unfortunate byproducts of the analog era – to be solved through data collection – and not as inevitable results of economic or ideological conflicts.

However, a politics without politics does not mean a politics without control or administration. As O’Reilly writes in his essay: “New technologies make it possible to reduce the amount of regulation while actually increasing the amount of oversight and production of desirable outcomes.” Thus, it’s a mistake to think that Silicon Valley wants to rid us of government institutions. Its dream state is not the small government of libertarians – a small state, after all, needs neither fancy gadgets nor massive servers to process the data – but the data-obsessed and data-obese state of behavioural economists.

Morozov is urging socialists/progressives to adopt policies on who may use data, as a counteroffense. But given their recent track record, it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t just make things worse if they did. 

Useful responses at the grassroots level must address these facts:

– Constant monitoring was mostly based on good intentions, not bad ones. Controlling the monster includes addressing public concerns about safety and security.

– The market for safety and security is probably larger than the market for privacy and acceptance of risk.

– People may not realize—or else choose to ignore—the fact that intensive mass surveillance creates risks of its own. Data can easily fall into the wrong hands. Ask Brandon Eich, who lost his Silicon Valley executive job, when lists of donors to traditional marriage causes were leaked by a government official to gay rights activists. There is no reason to believe that only gay rights activists would want or use such leaks. A variety of zealots will make every effort to get and use the forbidden data, and will often succeed.

Many people do not mind Big Brother if he happens to be going in the direction they are. They won’t mind until they want to go somewhere else. Personal freedom is turning out to be a harder sell, not despite, but because of the Internet.  

Here’s a TED talk by privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian, who notes that private companies are buying the technology to monitor citizens without detection as well.

Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...