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The flawed psychology of government mass surveillance (theguardian.com)
223 points by Libertatea 1402 days ago | hide | past | web | 78 comments | favorite

"This is despite the fact that science, alone, can lay claim to a wealth of empirical evidence on the psychological effects of surveillance."

Why do people ever expect reason to be a part of this? This quote shows exactly the point of surveillance (and torture for that matter). In a reasonable world, science and reason hold the greatest possible power. To perform surveillance despite the fact that it doesn't make sense is to exert one's power over reason itself. You cannot argue with an entity wielding such power, they have empirically shown that they are more powerful than reason. Follow this line and the only reasoning you are left with as an individual is submit or...

I've pasted this a million times but I strongly believe this is the absolutely most important quote from 1984 (from O'Brien torturing Winston Part 3, Chapter 3):

"We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?' "

We could easily add to that 'the object of surveillance is surveillance'. There is no end game in any of these assertions of power other than expression and confirmation of power: not security, not prosperity, not even the welfare of the nation.

This can be the thread of repeat quotes as I've posted this one before also. The author rightly uses the word 'bondage' as surveillance is part of servitude. Servitude of the powerless is the ultimate goal of power.

"Next in importance to personal freedom is immunity from suspicions, and jealous observation. Men may be without restraints upon their liberty: they may pass to and fro at pleasure: but if their steps are tracked by spies and informers, their words noted down for crimination, their associates watched as conspirators, who shall say that they are free? Nothing is more revolting to Englishmen than the espionage which forms part of the administrative system of continental despotisms. It haunts men like an evil genius, chills their gaiety, restrains their wit, casts a shadow over their friendships, and blights their domestic hearth.

The freedom of a country may be measured by its immunity from this baleful agency. Rulers who distrust their own people, must govern in a spirit of absolutism; and suspected subjects will be ever sensible of their bondage."

The Constitutional History Of England Vol II (1863), pg. 288

by T. E. May


Except of course for religion.

The object of torture is torture.

And so answers a question in the thread Don't fly during Ramadan. Why, when picked for examination/interrogation, does TSA threaten or actually re-search bags & people over and over knowing nothing new will be found? This.

> We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.

I am not entirely sure of this btw. We've seen a number of very short-lived successful coup de'etats in Ecuador which can only be under the assumption that the military seized power to make a political statement on behalf of protesters, and then quickly relinquished power. Additionally I have to wonder about Felix Sulla's restoration of the Roman republic near the end of his rule. I think it is likely that these are exceptions that prove the rule but "no one ever" is way too broad to be true on its face.

I think the larger problem is that organizations have a will to live independent of their members, and killing an organization is hard. What is the object of surveillance? It depends on who you ask. For the government agencies involved, this is a matter of extending their territory and so your view may hold some water there, but for a wider class, the object of surveillance is money, and they are the ones calling the shots I think.

One could argue the fact there's been so many coup d'etats by the military shows the military continues to hold the power.

I don't think that is the case. I think it is more likely that because of the banking crisis, people lost faith in their political institutions because the moneyed interests controlled everything and that even the army knew they could not really stand up to them. In other words, I think it is more likely that the army never had power than that they always had it.

The coup in Portugal in 1974 another example that gave up power soon afterwards.

Money == Power

The article's lead photo shows a frame from a movie version of 1984. The actor depicting the freedom-seeking protagonist, standing in front of an image of Big Brother, later depicted a near-identical Big Brother character in the 1984-ish V for Vendetta.

All too often those young idealists morph into the power structure they seek to topple. They may not start out with the objective of dictatorship per se, but they know no other path than to impose their own.

I always assumed mass surveillance was established not for the sake of surveillance, but to enable government to frame any citizen of some federal crime, a.k.a. terrorize the nation in order to hold the political influence and the money in their hands tightly.

Bingo. That and business intelligence/insider trading. Surveillance is very profitable.

I don't think the argument is really an argument against power. America has a wider political class, that holds power through democracy (at least partly, we hope). In many ways, in fact, democracy, free expression and privacy have the unique selling point of the West's system of governance. The argument is that this power isn't strengthened by surveillance but rather weakened and threatened (and the value of America-as-brand as well, I'd add). It is thus in the interests of those who hold power through democracy to put an end to the present level of surveillance. Whether there is really enough leverage for that to happen is another and less comforting question.

It is thus in the interests of those who hold power through democracy to put an end to the present level of surveillance.

I think you may have inadvertently hit on the problem. The people who hold the most power in the US don't do so because of democracy, they do so because of money. Campaign financing means that the winners are those who are able to wield a significant amount of money.

It isn't necessary that the people with the most money win elections either, just the fact that you must have millions to even get on the playing field means democracy is not the foundation of their power, it's just an obstacle.

It's less informative to say 'Power is its own end' than to explain why people try to acquire power, what they do with it, and what they do to keep it. Since we're doing quotes:

"As if giving grounds did not come to an end sometime. But the end is not an ungrounded presupposition: it is an ungrounded way of acting."

It's much, much simpler than that. It's laziness, and the desire to look like you're doing something. It's much, much easier to simply collect, collect, collect than actually analyse the intelligence... intelligently.

You're totally right, of course, but you can't blame folks for trying.

Yes you can and I do.

I see the NSA as filling the traditional role of god in the human psyche. In the same way that people have subscribed to atheism, I think there will be people who just decide to live without fear of the NSA and ignore the surveillance or embrace it in a rebellious way (such as innovating in ways to combat surveillance or trolling agents who are presumed to be watching). I'd like to see more research into that.

I think this is an important observation. Those who support the surveillance state are likely doing so for similar psychological reasons as the desire to believe in God: the reassurance that someone somewhere is watching, and meting out justice. And unlike with God, there is no disputing the existence of NSA; whether you have faith in their integrity and supposed mission is another matter.

See also this excellent Venkatesh piece on the relationship between observation and authority: http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2013/03/22/social-dark-matter-on-s...

Oddly, I believe in God, but I don't see God as a being that sees all or even knows all (Note: I follow in the tradition of A.N. Whitehead on theology. I hope that explains the premise). And similarly, I don't believe it is good for the State to know all or see all as it weakens our ability to change the nature of the State when necessity requires it either democratically and peacefully (optimal) or otherwise (revolution, war, and other bad ends imo).

I am.Christian and believe God surveillance to be important. The difference is that I believe God won't do evil with it, since.God is perfect.

Indeed, now we have an excellent set of tools to enforce religious conformance and to return state religion to it's rightful place in people's hearts, and at the center of everyday life.

It is fortunate indeed that these blessed tools that were sent to protect us from unchristian violence are also perfectly suited to protect our immortal souls from the corrupting influence of everyday life.

It is a manifest part of God's plan for us that we use these tools to spread God's word and to protect his flock from evil thoughts and actions.

Control must be absolute. God demands it.

What constitutes doing evil with it? Presumably you hope that God will exalt righteous believers and punish misbehavior, since you believe that his surveillance of people is important. I can't think of any motive for surveillance that does not involve acting on the collected information. Therefore, my question to you is, why do you care if your God punishes or exalts other people? Most of us don't believe in your God and are unlikely to change our behavior to conform to his norms, so even if God is watching and taking notes, at best he's meting out post-facto punishment for our sins, which is not going to make anyone act any nicer towards you in life. If you just hope that 'sinners' are going to 'hell,' I ask, why is another person's destination important to you? If your God is truly benevolent, shouldn't everyone just go to 'heaven' after they die? If your God is not benevolent, why do you worship him?

Even believers must admit that God is essentially mysterious; if there was a creator who wanted its presence known unambiguously, then it wouldn't be a frequent point of contention.

Rather, I think this an issue with the human psyche, which is complex, but unambiguously real. Whether or not there's a God, there are many who clearly want to believe in something which is omni-present, and I'm guessing that for those with no faith, or for whom their faith doesn't scratch that itch, they fill that gap with a fictional Good Guy Government that protects you while you sleep.

I think due to evolving as a social animal we necessarily have a sense of justice and a notion that bad behaviour must be punished or corrected. The notion that all bad behaviour is logged by a mysterious being that will present you with whatever comeuppance you deserve after life is a beautiful fiction. It makes one feel much better to believe that over thinking the more powerful person who took your things by force is going to get away with it.

I think it's more a desire to see justice than a desire for something omni-present. People that believe in neither religion nor good government will sometimes make claims like, "yeah one day I'm going to be that guy's boss," which is just saying, "I feel bad now but he'll get his comeuppance later and balance will be restored."

I believe God is just, not necessarily benevolent.

Putting aside drowning the majority of everything on Earth, what is just about destroying entire cities, sparing no one?

How do you know, a priori, that they didn't deserve it ;)


Applying Bayesian empiricism! My posterior measurement of P(redeemable|young) after a lifetime of observation is too high. While I'm on the topic of children; how is it just to kill the youth of Egypt for the flaws of their ruler and his enforcers?

To me two things are clear: God is a warrior God, there is even texts that talk about biblical battles from other points of view, like Sumerians. The second thing is that God, being God, can easily decide what action will result in wa outcome he wants, even if it require sacrifices. Like when you have one parachute and two people in a airplane. Not always is possible to save everyone.

> Not always is possible to save everyone.

False. God is omnipotent :)

Yes, but did you noticed a pattern where God leaves most stuff to humans to do?

Even some miracles are not miracles (ie: Jericho wall destruction, God explained what people had to do, but if you pay attention, it was a matter of physics, not supernatural power).

He didn't leave the killing of Egyptian children to humans, nor the razing of Sodom. You flat-out ignored my first question, though, so I can tell you really don't want to debate. Let's just stop this here.

> I think there will be people who just decide to live without fear of the NSA

The difference of course is that with religion I have the luxury of not believing that the surveilling entity actually exists. I have no similar comfort with the NSA.

I wish I didn't believe that the NSA exists, but I do, and there isn't any way for me to change that. I cannot simply decide that I no longer believe something exists.

I cannot simply decide that I no longer believe something exists

If you could make yourself disbelieve NSA, would you?

"Can't I just let myself forget what you've told me? Can't I just let myself forget what you've made me do. You think I just want another puzzle to solve? Another John G. to look for? You're John G. So you can be my John G... Will I lie to myself to be happy? In your case Teddy... yes I will" (from Memento)

Knowing what I know now, that it does exist, I wouldn't choose to forget it. However I would be happier if I didn't know it existed.

Really this just highlights that "choosing" to believe or not believe is sort of a silly concept.


Yeah, for most of us. But that's the thing about the guy in Memento - he can chose what to think and "remember" in the future since he trusts his own handwriting and pretty much forgets everything else.

"However I would be happier if I didn't know it existed" If you could chose to forget, you wouldn't know it existed, and thus be happier. Souds like the logical thing to do :)

Reminds me of a plot point in deus ex. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b-bijO3uEw

That's a strange but very interesting observation. Add a little anecdotal evidence, the religious people that I know on balance seem more predisposed to the line 'if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear' than the non-believers. Before you wrote your comment I would not have ascribed any significance to that correlation, now I'm not so sure.

As the article pointed out, "if members of a team felt a common social identity with their leader then surveillance in fact reduced the leader's influence by fostering resentment and distrust. However, if they saw their leader as belonging to a social outgroup then surveillance increased the leader's power."

In your anecdote, do the religious people see themselves as being in the same social group as the president or other powerful members of government?

To start, does the list of religious people you've talked include many non-Christians?

There is a problem with this analogy.

We're not there yet, but with the advances in technology I think we'll see in our lifetimes, one could implement surveillance as thorough as most conceptions of God.

we are there already

"An alternative is to put an end to mass surveillance, forcing the security services to fall in line with the parts of government that value liberty."

Which parts of the government are those?

The speechwriters.

| "A government that engages in mass surveillance cannot claim to value innovation, critical thinking, or originality."

Isn't that the point of surveillance?

I know you intended to be sarcastic, but anyway.

Governments want innovation, originality and critical thinking for its ability to foster wealth and a rich culture. At the same time they are afraid of the disruptive changes that is results of it, so they set up mass surveillance for the fear that is coming out of control.

At the same time they probably know that this have a bad effect on the society. That is why it was taken enormous measures to keep it secret, including gag orders on anything that could reveal its existence, likely in a hope that the bad effect won't happen if people don't know about it. Now the people know.

Bureaucracies don't like originality and critical thinking, but most people don't exhibit those behaviors anyway. And those that do, will do so regardless of reward or risk. Any hierarchy of control will calcify as it gets larger otherwise it would collapse under its own weight, so a surveillance state that aims to keep artistic endeavors in check makes sense.

While we do need a small number of elites to improve and think up new ideas (see Lenin's New Economic Policy of infusing innovation into Communism through temporary small scale Capitalism), it would be dangerous if everyone had free time or capacity of enlightened intellect to be as creative and critical as they are capable. The 60s are great existence proof of that.

As we are seeing with a general lack of outrage in the population over the snowden released information, people are more cautious, saying less and policing themselves. It is a small minority, maybe to their own peril who are speaking their minds.

The cynic would say that maybe Snowden's release was a planned move by the Administration. Think of how much more effective the system will be if it is in "the open." A bold move, but if successful, forever changes what the notion of liberty means in the US.

"...those that do [show creativity and original thinking], will do so regardless of reward or risk."

I disagree. I think that there will be some people who will be creative no matter what. There will some people who won't be creative no matter what. And there will be some people in the middle who could swing either way.

As an example: I think that Steve Jobs would've been creative and ambitious no matter what. But I don't think that Wozniak would've been ambitious if it wasn't for Jobs pushing him.

Certain environments foster creativity and experimenting. US colleges are full of weird intellectuals with crazy ideas. OTOH, Your typical, say, police department (or most government agencies...) is not.

The environment that we live in will tend to sway people in one direction or the other. (... just look at the environment of S.V. or YCombinator...)

It's funny, I was just thinking of what would have happened if Steve Jobs lived in a Soviet communist country (there's a discussion about communism in another thread). I don't think he would have succeeded, considering he would have had to get approval from the Party/current leaders for every little thing he did (or even just the big things).

I totally agree, I was thinking entirely of the former. The state knows it needs some of those people to go forward. But they will produce no matter what. Limiting the number of people on the second set is of little detriment and actually what I think is the goal.

Yes the total creative output is lower, but control is still retained. The state maximizes for control, not creative output or liberty.

It is really sad the NSA thing existed in the first place. A waste of intellect, creativity and resources on all sides. All those TFLOP years of computation for what?

Orwell summed up the psychological effect of total surveillance with Winston's insightful diary entry:

"Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death"

It starts with outward self-censorship and ends with the internal...

"He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions —'the Party says the earth is flat', 'the party says that ice is heavier than water'— and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them." - Chapter 4.


One observation in all of this: It is really the aim of at least some terrorists, to provoke the authorities so much so they will take measures that their subjects revolts againss. That was Baader Meinhof, and Rote Arme Fraktione ideology.

So when the authorities has failed, since they bought into the game, we are the last line of defense in not letting Osama Bin Laden win this.

Terrorists really don't deserve to win.

Anyone else feel like this article was describing what Facebook has become over the past few years?

Been talking about it for some time:


Totalitarianism is on the rise and the mass surveillance age is proof of it. It could also be an observation that we the public bought the lies of safety and security that was being fed to us in erecting all of these government programs.

I guess now many of us are seeing the light that it seems much more likely that this is really all about controlling the masses to the benefit of the state and not about security at all. However, those being given such powers may very well have figured that we would later figure this out but by then it would be too late for us to do anything about it. I would like to believe that we the people will prove them wrong.

"There are two ways to resolve this conflict between the motivations of elected representatives and security services. One is to embrace totalitarianism, breaking all bonds of social identity between politicians and the electorate. In this (unpalatable) scenario, democracy converts to a police state in which all parts of government are seen by the populace as an outgroup."

This is the case in at least some EU nations, like Lithuania. I am not even sure which is better between this and the US-like or UK-like alternative.

I seem to recall that not that long ago the Guardian was in favor of compulsory ID cards - I remember a Polly Toynbee leader about we had nothing to worry about.

You are probably referring to this - http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/nov/07/comment...

Although that is in the comment section rather than the leader, which I would expect as she is a columnist. But it is certainly funny in retrospect. Polly has always been something of a statist however, and is someone who seems generally ready to give government the benefit of the doubt on first principles.

I remember that, and the No2ID campaign. Later on, randomly, I met one of its founders at a conference in Cambridge and congratulated them on their work: regular people objecting to irregular government - that's what it takes.

Perhaps there is a way to make a technically sound platform that governments have a hard time doing mass surveillance?

I agree that this is a political problem, and needs a political solution. In the meanwhile, a couple of years ago, I started working in a team to work on this: https://register.blib.us - It lets your software/server manage your friendships (social network), and lets the hardware sit anywhere in the world. At some point, we plan to go open source, so that backdoors are patched (or known openly). Uses openid for auth, and provide enough providers in different countries. Its not adhoc, just point to point encrypted between trusted parties. I would love to hear ideas on how to make this rock solid. And of course nothing better than users who care.

I think it would be more fun to go the other way. Make it possible for anyone to conduct surveillance on anyone else.

What would be the reaction of politicians if their every phone call, email, message were able to be read and published?

Politicians have bodyguards that can put a bullet through the head of anyone who acts on the information, sometimes even legally!

On the other hand, do you really want the neighbor's meth-head boyfriend to have NSA style access to your records? to your children's records?

Seriously guys, a world with zero privacy may sound kind of cool... in theory. But you have to realize that there are actors much more nefarious than most governments on Earth, and the impact to the lives of those who become "persons of interest" for that kind of actors happen to be more immediate and unpleasant.

Not to disagree with you, but those bodyguards would be subject to the same surveillance, and the thought experiment is meant to explore that too.

But as for what this would be like, most likely it would be a society like the Borg (TNG Borg, pre-queen, not VOY Borg).

I'm not familiar with Star Trek lore. Will have to look at it.

This has been discussed before, but a political problem requires a political solution (cessation of surveillance through legislation and holding violators to account with imprisonment and fines.)

The problem is that political solutions become a political problem to those in power, who then impose their own political solution thereto.

The USA Constitution makes it completely clear: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." This became a political problem for the powerful, so they concocted a legal notion amounting to the suffix "unless the search is imposed on everyone without particular cause" which has proven surprisingly effective and acceptable to the general public.

When all branches of government conspire to ignore the rules, more rules won't stop them.

The problem with political solutions is that politics change. We need both a political solution and a technological solution. As an example, legal protections for people who run Tor exits or anonymous remailers -- the technology would help protect us from future abuses by the government, and the policy would help get the technology widely deployed to the point of being impractical to shove back into the bottle.

IMO, a better way is to create technical solutions that force politicians and bureaucrats to change their lowdown ways.

The political game is obviously rigged against us. Our strength is the technical solution, not the political solution.

How is this going to work, if, in case you would be trying to be a politician yourself in order to fight the injustice, by the time you have any influence, you are already motivated to increase the surveillance, not cease it. Problem is much deeper than "political misunderstanding" between the people and the government.

I was thinking about it. I came to a conclusion, that there would be no practical way of avoiding such channels. For example wireless mesh nets - too complicated and too fragile for even basic connection. And any kind of network architecture with central routes, like it is now - in case everyone would start to use secure encrypted connections, could just be shut down, laws would be established on what kind of communications are allowed and maybe even online ID pass would be a requirement. It is really a tough spot for our generation, it is a breaking point. If we fail this, people might be enslaved in such a way it would be near impossible for the future people to reclaim their freedoms we have lost. And we have not too much freedoms left when you think about it. We can't communicate freely, we can't travel freely, we can't even live on our own, we can't trade goods on our own.

Every wireless router & device should have been shipped, from early on in the history of WiFi, with default-on support for ad-hoc networks. Few and fragile at first, in many areas would have grown to a robust "backbone" by now and will only grow larger & stronger with device proliferation. Account for priority traffic & battery life, of course, but even low-level support would have grown very difficult to intercept. Alas, the desire for central control, as usual, overruled.

Yes. 90% of mass surveillance is worthless and mundane. If only the 10% of people who think and say things that are interesting were to conceal their communications, the NSA would be left with analyzing the content of inanities.

Which is why you study metadata, not content, since knowing who's talking to who (and how much encryption they're using) is always going to be more valuable against a competent adversary.

Of course, most adversaries of the US aren't competent. Planning to jihad something? A good first step to not getting caught would be to never visit a jihadi website in the first place.

Somebody needs to sit all the politicians down in a room somewhere and quietly point out to them that, historically, people have far, far more to fear from their own government than from any terrorist threat.

"Our surveillance is justified because terrorists!" rather misses the point..

We told them they cant profile, so they just spy on everyone and call it fair. Careful what you complain about.

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