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[liberationtech] How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?

Yosem Companys companys at
Wed Nov 6 09:31:24 PST 2013

How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?

by Richard Stallman

A version of this article was first published in Wired in October 2013.

The current level of general surveillance in society is incompatible
with human rights. To recover our freedom and restore democracy, we
must reduce surveillance to the point where it is possible for
whistleblowers of all kinds to talk with journalists without being
spotted. To do this reliably, we must reduce the surveillance capacity
of the systems we use.

Using free/libre software, as I've advocated for 30 years, is the
first step in taking control of our digital lives. We can't trust
nonfree software; the NSA uses and even createssecurity weaknesses in
nonfree software to invade our own computers and routers. Free
software gives us control of our own computers, but that won't protect
our privacy once we set foot on the Internet.

Bipartisan legislation to “curtail the domestic surveillance powers”
in the U.S. is being drawn up, but it relies on limiting the
government's use of our virtual dossiers. That won't suffice to
protect whistleblowers if “catching the whistleblower” is grounds for
access sufficient to identify him or her. We need to go further.

Thanks to Edward Snowden's disclosures, we know that the current level
of general surveillance in society is incompatible with human rights.
The repeated harassment and prosecution of dissidents, sources, and
journalists provides confirmation. We need to reduce the level of
general surveillance, but how far? Where exactly is the maximum
tolerable level of surveillance, beyond which it becomes oppressive?
That happens when surveillance interferes with the functioning of
democracy: when whistleblowers (such as Snowden) are likely to be

The Upper Limit on Surveillance in a Democracy

If whistleblowers don't dare reveal crimes and lies, we lose the last
shred of effective control over our government and institutions.
That's why surveillance that enables the state to find out who has
talked with a reporter is too much surveillance—too much for democracy
to endure.

An unnamed U.S. government official ominously told journalists in 2011
that the U.S. would not subpoena reporters because “We know who you're
talking to.” Sometimesjournalists' phone call records are subpoenaed
to find this out, but Snowden has shown us that in effect they
subpoena all the phone call records of everyone in the U.S., all the

Opposition and dissident activities need to keep secrets from states
that are willing to play dirty tricks on them. The ACLU has
demonstrated the U.S. government's systematic practice of infiltrating
peaceful dissident groups on the pretext that there might be
terrorists among them. The point at which surveillance is too much is
the point at which the state can find who spoke to a known journalist
or a known dissident.

Information, Once Collected, Will Be Misused

When people recognize that the level of general surveillance is too
high, the first response is to propose limits on access to the
accumulated data. That sounds nice, but it won't fix the problem, not
even slightly, even supposing that the government obeys the rules.
(The NSA has misled the FISA court, which said it was unable to
effectively hold the NSA accountable.) Suspicion of a crime will be
grounds for access, so once a whistleblower is accused of “espionage,”
finding the “spy” will provide an excuse to access the accumulated

The state's surveillance staff will misuse the data for personal
reasons too. Some NSA agents used U.S. surveillance systems to track
their lovers—past, present, or wished-for—in a practice called
“LOVEINT.” The NSA says it has caught and punished this a few times;
we don't know how many other times it wasn't caught. But these events
shouldn't surprise us, because police have long used their access to
driver's license records to track down someone attractive, a practice
known as “running a plate for a date.”

Surveillance data will always be used for other purposes, even if this
is prohibited. Once the data has been accumulated and the state has
the possibility of access to it, it canmisuse that data in dreadful

Total surveillance plus vague law provides an opening for a massive
fishing expedition against any desired target. To make journalism and
democracy safe, we must limit the accumulation of data that is easily
accessible to the state.

Robust Protection for Privacy Must Be Technical

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and other organizations propose a
set of legal principles designed to prevent the abuses of massive
surveillance. These principles include, crucially, explicit legal
protection for whistleblowers; as a consequence, they would be
adequate for protecting democratic freedoms—if adopted completely and
enforced without exception forever.

However, such legal protections are precarious: as recent history
shows, they can be repealed (as in the FISA Amendments Act),
suspended, or ignored.

Meanwhile, demagogues will cite the usual excuses as grounds for total
surveillance; any terrorist attack, even one that kills just a handful
of people, will give them an opportunity.

If limits on access to the data are set aside, it will be as if they
had never existed: years worth of dossiers would suddenly become
available for misuse by the state and its agents and, if collected by
companies, for their private misuse as well. If, however, we stop the
collection of dossiers on everyone, those dossiers won't exist, and
there will be no way to compile them retroactively. A new illiberal
regime would have to implement surveillance afresh, and it would only
collect data starting at that date. As for suspending or momentarily
ignoring this law, the idea would hardly make sense.

We Must Design Every System for Privacy

If we don't want a total surveillance society, we must consider
surveillance a kind of social pollution, and limit the surveillance
impact of each new digital system just as we limit the environmental
impact of physical construction.

For example: “Smart” meters for electricity are touted for sending the
power company moment-by-moment data about each customer's electric
usage, including how usage compares with users in general. This is
implemented based on general surveillance, but does not require any
surveillance. It would be easy for the power company to calculate the
average usage in a residential neighborhood by dividing the total
usage by the number of subscribers, and send that to the meters. Each
customer's meter could compare her usage, over any desired period of
time, with the average usage pattern for that period. The same
benefit, with no surveillance!

We need to design such privacy into all our digital systems.

Remedy for Collecting Data: Leaving It Dispersed

One way to make monitoring safe for privacy is to keep the data
dispersed and inconvenient to access. Old-fashioned security cameras
were no threat to privacy. The recording was stored on the premises,
and kept for a few weeks at most. Because of the inconvenience of
accessing these recordings, it was never done massively; they were
accessed only in the places where someone reported a crime. It would
not be feasible to physically collect millions of tapes every day and
watch them or copy them.

Nowadays, security cameras have become surveillance cameras: they are
connected to the Internet so recordings can be collected in a data
center and saved forever. This is already dangerous, but it is going
to get worse. Advances in face recognition may bring the day when
suspected journalists can be tracked on the street all the time to see
who they talk with.

Internet-connected cameras often have lousy digital security
themselves, so anyone could watch what the camera sees. To restore
privacy, we should ban the use of Internet-connected cameras aimed
where and when the public is admitted, except when carried by people.
Everyone must be free to post photos and video recordings
occasionally, but the systematic accumulation of such data on the
Internet must be limited.

Remedy for Internet Commerce Surveillance

Most data collection comes from people's own digital activities.
Usually the data is collected first by companies. But when it comes to
the threat to privacy and democracy, it makes no difference whether
surveillance is done directly by the state or farmed out to a
business, because the data that the companies collect is
systematically available to the state.

The NSA, through PRISM, has gotten into the databases of many large
Internet corporations. AT&T has saved all its phone call records since
1987 and makes them available to the DEA to search on request.
Strictly speaking, the U.S. government does not possess that data, but
in practical terms it may as well possess it.

The goal of making journalism and democracy safe therefore requires
that we reduce the data collected about people by any organization,
not just by the state. We must redesign digital systems so that they
do not accumulate data about their users. If they need digital data
about our transactions, they should not be allowed to keep them more
than a short time beyond what is inherently necessary for their
dealings with us.

One of the motives for the current level of surveillance of the
Internet is that sites are financed through advertising based on
tracking users' activities and propensities. This converts a mere
annoyance—advertising that we can learn to ignore—into a surveillance
system that harms us whether we know it or not. Purchases over the
Internet also track their users. And we are all aware that “privacy
policies” are more excuses to violate privacy than commitments to
uphold it.

We could correct both problems by adopting a system of anonymous
payments—anonymous for the payer, that is. (We don't want the payee to
dodge taxes.) Bitcoin is not anonymous, but technology for digital
cash was first developed 25 years ago; we need only suitable business
arrangements, and for the state not to obstruct them.

A further threat from sites' collection of personal data is that
security breakers might get in, take it, and misuse it. This includes
customers' credit card details. An anonymous payment system would end
this danger: a security hole in the site can't hurt you if the site
knows nothing about you.

Remedy for Travel Surveillance

We must convert digital toll collection to anonymous payment (using
digital cash, for instance). License-plate recognition systems
recognize all license plates, and the data can be kept indefinitely;
they should be required by law to notice and record only those license
numbers that are on a list of cars sought by court orders. A less
secure alternative would record all cars locally but only for a few
days, and not make the full data available over the Internet; access
to the data should be limited to searching for a list of court-ordered

The U.S. “no-fly” list must be abolished because it is punishment without trial.

It is acceptable to have a list of people whose person and luggage
will be searched with extra care, and anonymous passengers on domestic
flights could be treated as if they were on this list. It is also
acceptable to bar non-citizens, if they are not permitted to enter the
country at all, from boarding flights to the country. This ought to be
enough for all legitimate purposes.

Many mass transit systems use some kind of smart cards or RFIDs for
payment. These systems accumulate personal data: if you once make the
mistake of paying with anything but cash, they associate the card
permanently with your name. Furthermore, they record all travel
associated with each card. Together they amount to massive
surveillance. This data collection must be reduced.

Navigation services do surveillance: the user's computer tells the map
service the user's location and where the user wants to go; then the
server determines the route and sends it back to the user's computer,
which displays it. Nowadays, the server probably records the user's
locations, since there is nothing to prevent it. This surveillance is
not inherently necessary, and redesign could avoid it: free/libre
software in the user's computer could download map data for the
pertinent regions (if not downloaded previously), compute the route,
and display it, without ever telling anyone where the user is or wants
to go.

Systems for borrowing bicycles, etc., can be designed so that the
borrower's identity is known only inside the station where the item
was borrowed. Borrowing would inform all stations that the item is
“out,” so when the user returns it at any station (in general, a
different one), that station will know where and when that item was
borrowed. It will inform the other station that the item is no longer
“out.” It will also calculate the user's bill, and send it (after
waiting some random number of minutes) to headquarters along a ring of
stations, so that headquarters would not find out which station the
bill came from. Once this is done, the return station would forget all
about the transaction. If an item remains “out” for too long, the
station where it was borrowed can inform headquarters; in that case,
it could send the borrower's identity immediately.

Remedy for Communications Dossiers

Internet service providers and telephone companies keep extensive data
on their users' contacts (browsing, phone calls, etc). With mobile
phones, they also record the user's physical location. They keep these
dossiers for a long time: over 30 years, in the case of AT&T. Soon
they will even record the user's body activities. It appears that the
NSA collects cell phone location data in bulk.

Unmonitored communication is impossible where systems create such
dossiers. So it should be illegal to create or keep them. ISPs and
phone companies must not be allowed to keep this information for very
long, in the absence of a court order to surveil a certain party.

This solution is not entirely satisfactory, because it won't
physically stop the government from collecting all the information
immediately as it is generated—which is what theU.S. does with some or
all phone companies. We would have to rely on prohibiting that by law.
However, that would be better than the current situation, where the
relevant law (the PATRIOT Act) does not clearly prohibit the practice.
In addition, if the government did resume this sort of surveillance,
it would not get data about everyone's phone calls made prior to that

But Some Surveillance Is Necessary

For the state to find criminals, it needs to be able to investigate
specific crimes, or specific suspected planned crimes, under a court
order. With the Internet, the power to tap phone conversations would
naturally extend to the power to tap Internet connections. This power
is easy to abuse for political reasons, but it is also necessary.
Fortunately, this won't make it possible to find whistleblowers after
the fact.

Individuals with special state-granted power, such as police, forfeit
their right to privacy and must be monitored. (In fact, police have
their own jargon term for perjury, “testilying,” since they do it so
frequently, particularly about protesters and photographers.) One city
in California that required police to wear video cameras all the time
found their use of force fell by 60%. The ACLU is in favor of this.

Corporations are not people, and not entitled to human rights. It is
legitimate to require businesses to publish the details of processes
that might cause chemical, biological, nuclear, fiscal, computational
(e.g., DRM) or political (e.g., lobbying) hazards to society, to
whatever level is needed for public well-being. The danger of these
operations (consider the BP oil spill, the Fukushima meltdowns, and
the 2008 fiscal crisis) dwarfs that of terrorism.

However, journalism must be protected from surveillance even when it
is carried out as part of a business.


Digital technology has brought about a tremendous increase in the
level of surveillance of our movements, actions, and communications.
It is far more than we experienced in the 1990s, and far more than
people behind the Iron Curtain experienced in the 1980s, and would
still be far more even with additional legal limits on state use of
the accumulated data.

Unless we believe that our free countries previously suffered from a
grave surveillance deficit, and ought to be surveilled more than the
Soviet Union and East Germany were, we must reverse this increase.
That requires stopping the accumulation of big data about people.

Copyright 2013 Richard Stallman
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United
States License

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