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More Data, More Problems

Surveillance and the Information Economy


By Bhaskar Chakravorti
In 2007, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined three mobile phone operators for
failing to ensure that first responders could locate their customers if those customers were to dial 911
during an emergency. The nationwide initiative to get telecommunications companies to invest in
location technologies has been difficult: each company wanted the other partiesincluding public
safety agenciesto invest before it would make its own move. As a result, everyone held off complying
with the 2005 FCC mandate.
Even back then, it was odd that the telecommunications sector was so reluctant to embrace location
technology. Getting public safety communications right after 9/11 was paramount, and high-tech
analysts had been hyping location-based services for years. Marketing gurus extolled the virtues of the
segment of one, a concept that allowed for individualized selling through the fine parsing of
consumer data. The 2002 movie Minority Report offered a stunning, dystopian visualization of this
data-drenched future. Shops would be able to customize their commerce at the simple scan of a
retina. In the film, personalized greetings and troves of personalized products soon followed. For all
of this to be realized, of course, an entire location-cum-personal-dataaware ecosystem needed to be
set upand the mobile phone operators were not ready to invest in their piece without the rest of the
puzzle close to being completed.
Although not a perfect facsimile for Minority Reports smart retina system, todays devices are within
striking distance of it. Mobile apps and websites can find users food, companionship, and the nearest
gas stationall based on who is using them, the users past behaviors, and the precise location. Today,

Uber is as much a verb as it is a companyone that can dispatch a car to its users at the tap of a
screen and possibly do so faster than calling 911 could summon an ambulance just a few years ago.
Thanks to advances in technology, we are locatable almost anywhere, and our personal and
professional lives are connected in an ever-growing digital mesh. Houses can be seen from a distance.
Organizations can monitor the activities of their employees. Family members can keep track of one
another. Smart homes can monitor supplies (and even order household staples at the push of a
button), measure the use of utilities, monitor people on the premises, and even have their thermostats
set from anywhere in the world. These technologies are not limited to the developed world, either. In
disaster zones, such as post-earthquake Nepal, several crisis-response platforms cropped up that
create maps based on user inputs.
With all the data being accumulated, whether voluntarily crowdsourced or automatically collected
from daily digital activity, virtually every person with access to the Internet or a communications
device leaves a trail of information behind. According to IBM, the world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes
of data, and 90 percent of the worlds data has been created during the last two years. Once analyzed,
this trove of information can help companies develop products and prices tailored to our needs and
past behaviors. Governments can use the data to improve the lives of their citizens, as well, as seen in
Singapore and Estonia, the latter of which has created 4,000 digitized services, ranging from libraries
to licensing. Alternatively, however, data can be turned against those same citizens to control them,
punish their actions, or manipulate their opinions.
As society evolves toward a real-world version of Minority Report, it must consider how data will be
used. Fortunately, two timely booksData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and
Control Your World, by Bruce Schneier, asecurity technology specialist, and Disruptive Power: The
Crisis of the State in the Digital Age, byTaylor Owen, anassistant professor of digital media and global

affairs at the University of British Columbiaoffer informed and insightful perspectives on these
issues. Both consider the future role of incumbent public and private institutions in an age of
exponentially growing datathe exhaust of the information age, as Schneier describes it. Schneiers
book considers the effects of the technology age on state and large corporate entities, whereas Owen
focuses primarily on the state. Schneier is a worriersome readers may find him a bit paranoid. One
can hardly blame him, though: his discomfort stems from his observation that everything is turning
into a computer. Schneier continues, Your phone is a computer that makes calls. Your car is a
computer with wheels and an engine. Your oven is a computer that cooks lasagna. Your camera is a
computer that takes pictures. Even our pets and livestock are now regularly chipped; my cat could be
considered a computer that sleeps in the sun all day.
When viewed through this prism, one might do little else than fret about the ubiquitous computers
that accumulate permanent records of our daily existence without our knowledge of the extent of their
collection. Schneier says that 76 exabytes (76 million terabytes) of data will travel across the Internet
this yeardata that states and corporations can use for their own purposes.
Coverage of big data and surveillance can get technical, and most discussions are prone to devolving
into repetitive polemics, but Schneiers book is a tour de force that keeps the reader engaged. Like a
travel guide who has logged many miles along familiar territory, Schneier takes his readers on a
journey, rarely managing to lose their interest and attention. One can virtually smell the exhaust of
the information agethat is, how the trail of data is captured and the impact it has on contemporary
society. Schneier makes a strong case for how data collection can lead to the erosion of social justice,
and how it puts society at risk of losing core democratic values. Of course, he does not advocate
throwing the baby out with the bathwater; rather, he argues that society must strike a balance

between security, convenience, and privacy. His writing is compelling, and his own data gathering is
both meticulous and exhaustive: 121 pages of notes follow the books 238 pages of text.
Schneier is firm in his conviction that state surveillance has not really protected society. This point
needs more debate. It is often argued that when it comes to data collection, making the haystack
larger only makes it harder to find the needle. But it is impossible to stop searching for needles, and it
is hard to set sensible boundaries on the size of the haystack. Reality is dynamic: those who plant
needles realize these boundaries and put them just outside of reach. Schneiers book is also alarmist
about corporations. But consumers make an implicit deal with companies to give up control of their
data, and some privacy, in exchange for both convenience and free services. Some of the most
innovative startups are accumulating venture capital based off of these very deals. Once the consumer
is addicted to convenience of taps, swipes, and the appeal of free software, there is often no going
back.
Schneier has his readers nervously (and perhaps needlessly) looking over their shoulders, and his
books conclusion does little to allay the many anxieties. Most of his recommendations for reining in
government overreach tread familiar ground: proportionality, court-ordered targeting, greater
transparency, more and better oversight, the elimination of bulk surveillance techniques, and a host
of other limits on government powers. Those recommendations that are novel are less than practical:
breaking up the National Security Agency, protecting whistleblowers even if they put national security
at risk. (Schneier collaborated with the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, helping to
analyze documents released by the former government contractor Edward Snowden.)
Schneier has a long list of ideas for reining in corporations as well, including establishing information
fiduciaries, tightening regulations, and bolstering consumers rights to their own data. He urges
individuals to take action against the surveillance state through a four-part mantra: avoid it, distort it,

block it, and break it. Although this prescription may be feasible for one of the worlds foremost
security experts, it seems like too much for the common person whose computer capabilities are
challenged enough in deciding whether to accept the surge price on Uber or whether the next profile
deserves a left or a right swipe.
Whether Schneiers prescriptions for pushback are put into practice, the incumbent overlords of data
collection ought not to rest easy. As Snowden, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, U.S. Army soldier
Chelsea Manning, and a host of others have amply demonstrated, the mass surveillance machine
could create a backlash that would come back to haunt it. Despite the books title, Schneiers
exposition on the Goliath is missing a David. The monolithic surveillance machine is not paired with a
true test of its strength from an underpoweredbut more determinedunderdog.
Taylor Owens Disruptive Power: The Crisis of the State in the Digital Age provides that narrative.
Owen borrows disruption theory from innovation literature and the works of Harvard University
Professor Clay Christensen. He hails the power of new actors to disrupt old hegemons. Although
governments and commercial actors have the advantages of experience and scalability, non-state
actors can work as the disruptors of the status quo. These groups are decentralized, collaborative, and
motivated, and are therefore resilient. Owen cites the hacktivity of an international network, such as
Anonymous, as an example of an underdog fighting successfully against the state.
Anonymous, however, is far from the sole David in Owens documented fight against binary Goliaths.
In fact, his book provides many. Telecomix, a group of net activists seeking to promote freedom of
expression, and bitcoin, the cryptocurrency that provides users with anonymous online transactions,
are examples. He cites Ushahidi, a website used to document crises as they unfold, to show how
harnessing the wisdom of crowds can spread awareness of an issue around the world. Although each
of these examples in Owens book is inspiring, one is left wondering whether these collective pin

pricks of disruption will be enough to dislodge a powerful status quo, even if they were enabled by
clever innovators and the amplifying effect of further technological advances. After all, the digital
uprising that gave birth to the Arab Spring now seems like a distant memory. The international
financial order has not been shaken by bitcoin, a currency once compared to Kim Kardashian because
its famous for being famous. Crisis-mappers and crowdsourcing in general, although cost-effective
and creative, have not yet posed a serious threat to the work of traditional institutions. Incumbents
can adapt. This dynamic could play out in the political sphere as well.
Although much of Owens attention is focused on the challenge that disruptors present to the state, he
also digs into how the state is fighting back. The end of the book features a discussion on how the
state can extend military technologies and tactics beyond the battlefield, using advances in automated
warfare and new technologies to fight back through surveillance and other measures. Owen writes,
The big question is whether these actions are meaningful; are these really challenging institutional
powers? Disruptive Power raises more questions than answers, but the questions are good ones.
Society is well past the point in 2007 when the FCC had to chide telecommunications companies for
failing to track their customers. Now, not only are customers tracked but the data that results is
growing exponentially. Governments and corporations are realizing the value of this data; so, too, are
the ordinary men and women responsible for its generation. As consumers and citizens, we benefit
from data being collected, analyzed, and harnessed by digital Goliaths from both the public and the
private sectors. At the same time, it is important for us to create Davids that make sure these Goliaths
are held in check, and act within the best interests of a free and open society. A careful reading of
these two essential books offers key insights into this struggle, which promises to be of biblical
proportions.