Stallman on surveillance

Technology theory veteran Richard Stallman writes an op-ed in Wired Magazine which is well worth some attention. Stallman argues convincingly that digital surveillance has gone much too far and that governments now have access to a lot more information about citizens than they should, as Edward Snowden has shown. Stallman suggests some technological solutions in order to limit surveillance, such as limits on security cameras to connect to data centers and store video. His answer to the question of digital surveillance is technological. That view has a lot of merit, not least as the basic assumption is that technology must change to meet the priorities of society. But Stallman’s other basic assumption, I find troubling: that anonymity is the best solution to privacy. The idea that government is the main threat to privacy is moot. Instead we should put in place where human rights are at the forefront, privacy is guaranteed by keeping tabs on government institutions and technology suppliers both. The basic question is “who watches the watchmen?” (and that question is of course much older than the internet). If the answer is to hide better, we are heading the wrong way – we should be free to act openly, assured by the fact the it is the task of the government to protect our privacy. That requires putting in place some manner of oversight function that handles privacy both in relation to government agencies and private actors. And it also requires of the government secret services to dismiss the technological imperative that suggests that everything that can be done in terms of data collection also should be done. Privacy requires many trade-offs in terms of efficiency, not least in the age of big data. This is certainly true for secret services, who must be kept under close democratic control. For sure, the nature of their operations make actual transparency impossible (they are secret services after all), but certainly democratic oversight can be introduced in a way that does not compromise their work. So while Netopia is happy to sign up to most of Stallman’s shopping list of privacy suggestions, the main solution lies elsewhere. Democracy must be part of solution, not the problem.