The Internet is a surveillance state. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time. Google tracks us, both on its pages and on other pages it has access to. Facebook does the same; it even tracks non-Facebook users. Apple tracks us on our iPhones and iPads. One reporter used a tool called Collusion to track who was tracking him; 105 companies tracked his Internet use during one 36-hour period.
This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it’s efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.
There are a few important things to recognize about Schneier’s argument (which, I don’t think, detract from his overall points):
- Surveillance isn’t inherently bad. It speaks to a distribution of power where another party enjoys heightened capabilities resulting from their perception of the surveilled. Surveillance becomes ‘bad’ when the power disequilibrium has harmful moral or empirical consequences.
- Again, it isn’t entirely surveillance that’s the ‘problem’ with the Internet; it’s the persistent recollection of information by third-parties, often without the data subject knowing that (a) the data was collected; (b) it was subsequently recalled in an unrelated context; © it was then used to influence interactions with the data subject. These problems have always existed, in some fashion, but we are living in an era where what used to historically have been lost to the ethers of time is being retained in massive databases. The nature of perpetual computational memory – often made worse when errors in retained data spawn in perpetuity across interlinked systems – challenges how humans understand time, history, and subjectivity in very powerful ways.
- With regards to (2), this is why Europeans are interested in their so-called ‘Right to Be Forgotten’. And, before thinking that forgetting some data collected vis-a-vis the Internet would lead to the end of the (digital) world, consider that Canadians largely already ‘enjoy’ this right under the consent doctrines of federal privacy law: the ‘net isn’t broken here, at least not yet!
(Note: for more on the consent doctrine as it relates to social media, see our paper on SSRN entitled, “Forgetting, Non-Forgetting and Quasi-Forgetting in Social Networking: Canadian Policy and Corporate Practice”)