The Quest For Power Has Always Been A Quest For Information Advantage
One recurring theme in conflicts through history is that the struggle for power has always been the struggle for the information advantage. The group that had more and better information always rose to power. This is why the NSA’s façade about security justifying spying is nonsense – it is, and was always, about pure unadultered power, and mass surveillance threatens democracy at a systemic level.
It’s hard to tell exactly when information became increasingly equivalent with power, but we do know that the Romans intercepted couriers who carried messages, and that the Romans used a covert form of messaging by tattooing a message into a slave’s shaved head and sending that slave as a messenger once the hair had grown back enough to conceal the presence of a message. This hints at a fairly advanced awareness of information hygiene.
We also know that the Catholic Church was keenly aware of its interpretation privilege. Since the Bible was in Latin, and only priests were allowed to read the Bible (and knew Latin), they could dictate anything as true from the Bible as they liked. This was a huge information advantage; they could present their own interests as the public interest and stand completely unchallenged. This is a very strong example of historical information advantage with a group that also had unchallenged power.
In the age when the Catholic Church reigned supreme, you could be sent into exile for unauthorized reading of the Bible. The privilege of interpretation – the maintaining of the information advantage – was that important.
“Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart, he dreams himself your master.” — Commissioner Pravin Lal
When the printing press arrived, entire cartloads of bibles would suddenly appear on the streets of Paris – in French! The Church, having its information advantage threatened, persuaded royalty to enact the death penalty for unauthorized book copying (as in using a printing press at all). This happened in France, on January 13, 1535.
This illustrates that today’s NSA/GCHQ/FRA affairs of mass wiretapping isn’t new thinking. It’s at least 2000 years old. But its leverage is all the much greater today, with access to such huge amounts of information.
The old Stasi archives are on display in a building at the center of Berlin, at the Stasi Museum. It’s a fairly large building. Most people have the mental image that Stasi was the pinnacle of evil mass surveillance; that nothing before or after it has been as thorough and all-collecting.
There is an interesting visualization that compares the NSA to the Stasi in an apples-to-apples comparison. If the NSA used the same technology to store its collected information on ordinary citizens as the Stasi did, how much building area would its information take up, where the Stasi took a full large building in Berlin?
Most people don’t realize the magnitude of what’s going on right now. The answer isn’t two buildings, four buildings, or a block. It’s not even a suburb or a city. It’s all of Europe and a large chunk of Northern Africa.
The reason this is important is because it leads to a reversal of power. In a democracy, we are supposed to be contemplating society’s troubles as citizens, and vote for leaders that are best suited to solve them at regular intervals. This concept requires – and this is important – that the voters are sovereign in their individual decision. The individual vote is supposed to be the one decision in a democracy that can never ever be challenged under any circumstance. Everything else is part of a checks-and-balances system; everything else is subject to the individual vote.
What the current mass surveillance does does is reverse this entire power pyramid. For the first time in a supposed democracy, elected leaders have the ability to hold voters accountable for the decision of their vote. Or at least their private opinions leading up to that vote, which is the same thing in practice.
That’s why mass surveillance threatens democracy at a systemic level. “Fighting crime” or “national security” is far from enough justification for it.
Your privacy is your power over the establishment. Just as the establishment takes responsibility for maintaining its own power, your privacy remains your own responsibility.