Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chilling Effects: Don’t Make the Robots Mad

Dave Eggers writing in The Guardian indirectly asks U.S. writers to say more about how we are being affected by NSA surveillance:

First, I must state what should be obvious. I limit what I write on the Internet and what I say on the phone, and you should too. We live in an era in which we must simply assume that every phone call is being transcribed by machine and the resulting garbled transcript analyzed for word frequencies to discern subject and mood, and electronic documents are analyzed in the same way. I may be specifically targeted because I am a writer, but as a reader, you are not much safer. The words you read are analyzed just as assuredly as the words I write are. You must arrange to live part of your life offline if only to create a smidgen of separation from the world of digital surveillance. A judge recently described the NSA’s surveillance net as unreasonable and indiscriminate, and that was based just on what was in the court record. Imagine what the judge might have said if the full scope of NSA surveillance had been disclosed. Then bear in mind that the NSA is just the most prominent in a mass surveillance game that has hundreds of players, many effectively unknown to us.

I see no reason to take at face value the assertion that the NSA’s digital obsession is the violence of terrorism. With the technology it has at its disposal, the temptation to commercial espionage is far too great to resist. My assumption is that at least 95 percent of the NSA’s work is of a commercial nature. If you want to know what the NSA is working on, then you probably just need to look at what people are spending their money on. In my view, the significance of the NSA is fundamentally no different from that of the spammers who study all of us for the same purposes. Indeed, some of the spam email you receive must surely originate in the NSA, as they use junk messages to feel out the weaknesses in your email service in preparation for breaking in. Part of the reason we can never win the war against spam email is that organizations like the NSA depend on it as a cover for their own activities. If the NSA is not actively trying to profit from the spam messages it sends, the Chinese military almost certainly is.

Eggers links to a report on self-censorship. Most U.S. writers, a survey found, limit their work because they assume they are being watched. The word “self-censorship” could be misleading. It implies that a writer like me must black out some of the words he has written because they are not safe to release to the public. That happens far less than you might imagine. I must assume that my unpublished drafts are being scrutinized just as indiscriminately as my posts. Any words I might have to black out, topics that get writers in trouble, I never write at all. But it goes beyond this. It is better if I do not even think deeply about these subjects. These are problems for other thinkers, problems that probably must be left for other decades when people gain more freedom of action to address them. But this scarcely matters now. The current decade gives us more than our share of problems to look into, and it will be enough if we address the ones that we can.

Prior to 2003, espionage was conducted by people looking for patterns, and so people mistakenly assume that the NSA must follow that pattern from the past. But the scale of the NSA’s activities is too great for them to possibly be done that way. When White House officials say that no one is listening to your phone calls or reading your email, the statement is as literally true as it is misleading. If there is a machine that knows what you are talking and writing about, and to whom, that is every bit as damaging as if people were collecting the same information in the traditional way. In a very real sense, it is more damaging, for two reasons: the NSA machine has this information on all of us, and it is a machine that is out of control. People work for the NSA, but the NSA no longer works for the benefit of people.

In the late 1980s I participated in a small way in a draft of a musical called Robots. In the story, the robots, often disguised as humans, do not reveal their plan to take over the world until the end, after it has already happened. Even then, most people pay no attention. This is the real threat from the kind of technological surveillance we now face. It is not the humans at the NSA that we fear. As writers, when we self-censor, it is because we don’t want to make the robots mad. A writer like me cannot stand up to the machine. But this means it is a war that the robots are already winning.