Sunday, February 23, 2014

Surveil me this

Recently I have seen a lot of people complaining that the increases in information technology we have seen in the past few decades have given the government unprecedented power over its citizens.  They have expressed the concern that as cameras get smaller and cheaper and as processing power increases that everything will fall apart and we will spiral into a 1984 style dystopia.  While I agree that many revelations in recent years such as the NSA scandals in the US and similar issues with CSIS here in Canada are worrying I think the overall trend is for the good.  Violence overall is going consistently down and I feel that technology follows a similar arc.  Not all signs are good but taken as a whole there is much to celebrate.

Consider that these days it is much harder for police to get away with brutality than in previous eras.  Any time the agents of the government decide to violate people's rights they know that nearly anyone nearby can be recording them.  Sometimes they try to remove all of the records and still fail because there are simply too many cameras everywhere.  It will not be long before it is entirely practical to have a miniscule camera recording every moment of our lives and government employees will need to accept that any time they abuse their authority they will end up splashed all over the news within hours.

It has been established that police violence drops precipitously when they have recording devices on them and there is a growing call for this to be the case so even absent civilian action I think we will eventually see police doing it themselves.  The greatest enemy of oppression is a free and informed citizenry who can howl and shout and force those in charge to rein in abuses wherever they are found, and in future those abuses will be found more and more consistently.  Of course recording will not prevent all abuse but it will allow us to cut off the worst abusers and curtail abuse from those on the margins.

Information technology is a weapon and like any weapon it can be used for good or for ill.  Lamenting its existence is pointless; rather we should spend our time and energy on making sure that those in power get as little chance to leverage the power of information as possible.  We should focus not on demonizing technology itself but rather the nefarious uses it can be put to.  Harvesting personal data from all citizens in order to justify spurious warrants or to further political agendas is disastrous, yes, but we don't stop that by smashing cameras or cursing Moore's Law.  We stop it by demanding that our politicians stand for freedom and individual empowerment for citizens and by raising a mighty ruckus when they fail to do so.  Furthermore we should use that very technological power to keep ourselves as safe as we can possibly be and doing so definitely entails leveraging progress to shine a light into all of the darkest corners of the world.

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