Terror as a second or third order effect of personal communication surveillance by governments

Several years ago, during a session at Harvard Law School led by a small group of Google executives, I asked one of those executives about his company’s strategy behind starting services in categories where there was no obvious direct business benefit. The answer that came back fascinated me. It was, “We look for second and third order effects.” (Earlier JP Rangaswami and I came up with another term for that: “because effects.” That is, you make money because of something rather than with it.) I hadn’t thought about it until now, but I believe Google’s ability to monitor online activities by individuals on a massive scale serves as a model for governments to do the same.

I bring this up not because I believe Google models government surveillance (even though, without intending to, it does), but because I believe surveillance by governments inevitably causes second and third order effects. The least of those is to chill personal expression. The greatest of those is terror.

The more I think about those effects, the more Hannah Arendt comes to mind. Arendt studied totalitarianism in depth, and its use of terror as a technique for state control of citizens.

I read and re-read Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism when I was in college, in the late 1960s. That was a time of revolt in the U.S. (most notably against institutionalized racism and the Vietnam war), and both of Arendt’s totalitarian state examples — Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union — operated in recent memory, and still served as models. While I don’t believe we are headed to a totalitarian end in the U.S., I do believe the current news suggests a vector of policy and action ratcheting gradually in that direction.

So I encourage revisiting what Arendt said about the paralyzing unease that state monitoring of personal communication induces in a population. And also what she says here:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.

Check your feelings for a reaction to this question raised both by Snowden and blow-back against him: Do we really know what’s going on?

Without that question, we wouldn’t have an NSA. Or a CIA.

What we need is to take the third order effects of total surveillance into account. Because one of those effects is to put the population itself into a state of terror. And chilling effects are just the first step in that direction.

So, while the feds may be looking for the needles of bad actors and actions in the haystack of all people and their communications, knowing that all of us are subject to suspicion is bound to make us think more than twice, as for example I am right now, about using the terms “terror” and “terrorism” in something I publish online.

Here are some links I’m accumulating on the topic of PRISM and other forms of government surveillance here in the U.S.:

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9 Responses to Terror as a second or third order effect of personal communication surveillance by governments

  1. Keith says:

    The link you intended to lead to Joe Ratliff’s article instead is the same as the previous item in your list (the link to the privacy petition).

  2. I appreciate you linking to my blog post Doc. 🙂

    But, the link provided links to the Petition again.

    http://josephratliff.com/blog/privacy-matters is the correct link for those interested.

    Again, thanks Doc.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Joseph. Fixed.

  4. Todd Carpenter says:

    One thing I’ve noticed is that people have so little understanding about what could be done with this. One suggestion about the data collection from cell towers and phone ID data so that it’s not personally identifiable. However if you think that stripping out your name and address from these data (and only leaving a phone ID and tower ID) protects your privacy, you’re woefully mistaken: According to a paper published in Nature in March, It only takes 4 calls to identify 95% of callers w/ these forms of data. The fact that everyone has in their pocket a GPS tracking device working nearly 24/7 and that the government is tracking and storing this, yeah, that’s creepy in a way that most people don’t get creeped out by “metadata”.


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  6. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Todd.

    The point is, they can know much more than they claim.


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  8. I’ve been so frustrated with the news I’ve seen on this (not really much, I shun #oldmedia on anything important) until a light went off… “This matches what Doc Searls was talking about”

    Sure enough, you’ve given me me all the ammo I need to help other understand the real issues at hand, and look for better solutions.

    You rock Doc.

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