Tuesday, 30 November 2010


The news that a quarter of a million cables from US embassies around the world have now - courtesy of Wiki-Leaks - found their way into the public domain has got me thinking. And the one recurring thought was this might be a watershed moment in the history of secrecy.

Now that we are well along the road to becoming an e-society it is probably the time to reconsider what we mean by the term 'private'. Thanks to the proliferation of mobile phones, computers, surveillance cameras and the ever more ubiquitous networked sensors we are living in an increasingly See-Thru World. Governments with chilling ease can eavesdrop on our 'phone conversations, check-out our e-mail correspondence, examine what we buy (Tesco warehousing the data it collects from your Customer Card etc.) and know where we are (a combination of cameras, mobiles and credit cards sees to that). We must accept that nothing is private anymore.

But there is something more fundamental we must accept and that is it's impossible to eliminate surveillance. The technology has gone too far. To demand that a government (any government) ceases and desists in its ever expanding surveillance operation is both naive and counter-productive. A government will only respond by creating ever smaller cameras, ever more subtle ways of monitoring you and me and everyone else in the country. And in doing so governments have destroyed privacy.

So as I see it the real objective of those railing against surveillance (like me) should be to protect the average-Joe citizen from the inequalities of surveillance. We must continually remind ourselves that what makes surveillance so invidious isn't that it invades privacy but that it is intrinsically unfair. Why? Because only certain people - the digerati if you must - have access to the fruits of surveillance! Surveillance is the new feudal system: the vast majority of people labour to provide the information which feeds the government’s surveillance apparatus but they are deprived of the ownership of the fruits of their labours. Even the social hierarchy of the Information Age mirrors this feudal structure: we have those at the top - the politicians - who rule; those in the middle - the bureaucrats - who watch over the peasantry; and finally the digitally disenfranchised at the bottom – the nu-peasantry.

We don't need less surveillance...we need fairer access to the information that underpins that surveillance. Maybe the guy who provided Wiki-Leaks with this material was just trying to make the system a little fairer.

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