The Surveillance State: Startups need to prioritise privacy innovation

- July 23, 2014 4 MIN READ

In 2011, Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei was arrested without charge and kept under surveillance for 81 days. His every move was scrutinised. After his release, officials guarded his home, and several CCTC cameras continued to monitor his movements. His internet behaviour had, supposedly, legitimated a comprehensive breach of personal privacy.

It’s a troubling thought to be subjected to this kind of surveillance. It’s more troubling to think that even without cameras, it is becoming increasingly possible to monitor individual activity. There are far more insidious modes of surveillance available to governments in the digital realm.

In an ideal world, privacy is a matter of personal disclosure; what we choose to make known of ourselves, our relationships, and activities. In a liberal democratic state, the distinction between public and private represents not only the discretionary fluctuation between personal and civic engagement, but often determines the reach of state power and coercion.

A government ought not to intervene in the private sphere, unless certain activities incite violence, or breach the freedom of another. That’s at least how John Stuart-Mill, the seminal philosopher of modern liberalism, thought it should be. But in the globalised era, the bridges between private and public are precarious. Former News Corp journalist Paul McMullen describes privacy as ‘the space bad people need to do bad things in’, and Snowden’s NSA bombshell revealed the extent to which liberal democratic states respect this supposedly crucial division.

In Australia, we are under far less ‘real world’ surveillance than our Chinese neighbours, whose cities are riddled with CCTC cameras. But when it comes to virtual behaviour, we are well within view. The AAP reported earlier this year that, second only to the US, the Australian government requested the most ‘user data’ from Telstra, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft.

It seems online surveillance will get more intense before it eases. George Brandis, our Attorney General, has frequently decried Edward Snowden as a ‘traitor’. He has consistently lauded the government’s use of surveillance in the preservation of national security. Last week he presented a bill to parliament which included the creation of a new offence punishable by fives years. The offence includes the discloser of information relating to ‘special intelligence operations’, clearly targeting journalists reporting on Snowden-like revelations. These are extraordinary measures ensuring that surveillance not only continues, but that those who disclose information relating to it are prosecuted.

It is worth investigating what kinds of data are actually requested by governments. Zack Galifanakas, while interviewing US president Obama on his show Between Two Ferns, jokes that he doesn’t have a mobile phone because he doesn’t want ‘you guys reading my texts.’ Obama responds, ‘Zack, nobody wants to read your texts.’

Obama’s punch line is comedic, but also eerily true. Virtual surveillance largely ignores content such as Zack’s texts, but rather observes ‘metadata’. Metadata is the information relating to the exchange of content, such as dates, file sizes, times, frequencies of contact, locations etc. Stewart Baker, NSA general counselor, said ‘metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life. If you have enough metadata, you don’t really need content’. The former director of the NSA and CIA General Michael Hayden controversially noted that ‘we kill people based on metadata’.

Hayden is referring to extreme scenarios, but his comment is still illuminating. It demonstrates the devastating accuracy with which we reveal our movements, acquaintances and activities when we engage in virtual communication. Everyday, most of us make such data readily available, particularly with the surge in cloud technology. The American research firm International Data Corporation estimates that technology with ‘cloud’ functionality will constitute 90% of new software purchases over the next six years.

So what, now, is at our discretion in regards to personal privacy? Mitigating the impact of state data collection on privacy is largely in the hands of the individual, as governments have a relatively low incentive to reduce their data collection. But there are large social and professional pressures to actively engage in social media and cloud technology. It follows that the technology market itself needs to innovate the way we structure and conceptualise privacy in the digital space.

The market is far from an impervious tool for mitigating undesirable societal circumstances, but there is evidence to suggest that developers are coming round to the appeal of secure internet use. The file sharing market, for example, is seeing surging demand for the ‘on-premises’ perk, which avoids the use of public servers. Several software products are already providing variations of this functionality (Podzy, Egnyte). Networking across larger distances is going to prove the major challenge for securing privacy, but the use of on premises servers in businesses, and even small communities, is not far off.

Commentary on the NSA and government data collection readily focuses on legislative demands for change. But these solutions often fall upon deaf ears, and obfuscate the ability of those within the software market to innovate conditions of user privacy. This is by no means a simple task: market giants Google are revealing plans to install Android operating systems to watches, smart cars, and smart thermostats, heralding a drastic permeation of surveillance-savvy technology into everyday life.

But the fact that the mainstream is storming towards a significant increase in surveillance technology means only that the startup market should place an even greater premium on the urgency of privacy innovation. If increased security is marketed cleverly, attractive alternatives can compete. If Ai Weiwei is right in calling surveillance a threat to ‘civilised society’, technology developers have not only an economic, but a moral incentive to innovate.