Re: the loss of our civil liberties to a high-tech big brother...

Charlie Stross (
Tue, 7 Dec 1999 12:16:38 +0000

On Mon, Dec 06, 1999 at 02:30:35PM -0800, john grigg wrote:
> I agree with you that most likely the most terrible totalitarian governments
> have yet to be. As an American citizen my deepest hope is that my own
> nation will not fall prey to this.
> Also a U.S. president could declare martial law in a time of severe crisis,
> thereby suspending the constitution and becoming a dictator over the
> military. In a time of fear and violence(repeated terrorist strikes or an
> epidemic) things could really get out of control but I would hope the checks
> and balances of the other branches of government and public opinion would
> take hold. A common scenario is shown in the film "The Siege" but I see a
> much more likely and less explosive and incremental loss of American
> liberties done for "our own good."

Ahem: the real threat isn't some guy in jackboots and a toothbrush moustache taking over the Oval Office. It isn't even some greedy politician in an expensive suit taking over the Oval Office. The _real_ threat is creeping totalitarianism through the automation of legislative constraints on everyday life.

For example, take the War on Drugs. The illegality of some drugs is taken as an acceptable justification for almost _any_ measure to prevent the use of such drugs, regardless of the damage such measures inflict on society at large. As if having to piss into a bottle to satisfy your employers that you're not using illegal substances isn't bad enough, imagine what it's going to be like when the availability of cheap microtechnology HPLC and mass spectroscopy equipment gives every cop the equivalent of a forensic laboratory. They won't simply be checking you for heroin or cocaine; they'll be able to verify that you're not using any prescription medicines you weren't prescribed by your own doctor (clue: at least in the UK, it's illegal to consume prescription-only medicines without having been prescribed them). They'll be able to verify whether or not you've been drinking, or smoking. Maybe they'll be able to verify whether or not you're exhalations contain hormonal indicators of anger or stress, suggesting you might have been (heaven forbid!) _angry_ and in charge of an automobile. And they'll certainly be able to quickly cross-match your genotype against markers found at every crime scene for the past few years.

Basically, they'll be using this technology, and the excuse that Drugs are Illegal, to police your state of mind. (With handy mandatory sentencing in court if you're found guilty. And please bear in mind that as the middle classes have become less secure, they've consistently voted for politicians who promise a more draconian answer to crime -- brutal punishment, not reform.)

Simply put, it's easier to pass new bad laws than repeal old bad laws. And once we have the technology to police bad laws, those bad laws will be enforced. Just think about all those jurisdictions that still have sodomy laws (or laws mandating that the only permissable sexual activity is in the missionary position between husband and wife) on the books. What's it going to be like once ubiquitous micro-UAV's with neural network image recognition are available for a dollar a pop, and someone like Pat Robertson ends up as a state governor by promising to make everything like it used to be?

> It looks like parts of Europe may be heading down this road now. What do
> the Europeans on this list have to say?? Or do you feel what the English
> are doing is not so threatening?

In some ways Europe is better off than the USA; in others, less so. I suspect the War on Drugs will crack in Europe first -- and there's also an explicit right to privacy in the European Declaration of Human Rights, which is being impelemented at the level of constitutional law throughout all the member states. Here in Scotland we have a different legal system from England, so to some extent we're firewalled from the most egregious infringements going on there.

There's also a lot of misreporting in the US media of events in Europe. For example, it was widely reported a year or so ago that France banned encryption entirely, making it a criminal offense to use encryption. What these reports -- which were true -- ignored was the fact that France has draconian privacy laws; it's a serious felony to read someone else's email! (If your employer reads your mail in France you can put them in prison for it.) Against that background, encryption was seen as a criminal tool -- the ordinary right to privacy was already covered. Once the French government woke up to the implications of the internet, they repealled the law banning encryption almost completely; the point is, reporting that "encryption is illegal in France" doesn't give you the whole picture.

I'd say probably the biggest and most important defense against this sort of cybernetic tyranny is an emphasis on privacy as being as much of a fundamental human right as free speech -- and measures to extend the enforcement of privacy rights internationally, so that individuals or groups such as governments can't weasel around local restrictions by exporting personal data to jurisdictions with no privacy protection (such as the USA).

I suspect we're going to see the worst problems with automated tyranny in precisely those places that pay most lip-service to freedom while ignoring privacy concerns. And instead of the "anchorman" style of dictatorship (guy on a white horse, ranting in front of a crowd of uniformed supporters) we're going to see something different; expect a committee of smiling friendly faces telling us they're going to do something really outrageous for our comfort and safety.

PS: A week ago, my local city council sponsorted an event titled "Sixteen days of action against violence against women". Nothing wrong with that, you might think -- non-consensual violence is just plain Wrong, right? What most people missed was that an anti-porn pressure group (with some barking mad fundamentalist connections) was piggy-backing a book-burning on top of this consciousness-raising event. Their excuse is that pornography causes violence against women -- an assertion on which the jury is most definitely out, as anyone who remembers the Meese Commission might be aware. Moreover, they weren't targeting the demon du jour of child pornography; they were going after material on sale in just about any newsstand. Can you spell "censorship"?

Luckily my other half spotted this before it happened, and the net effect was to (a) trigger lots of running around getting signatures on a letter, (b) generate some favourable _anti-censorship_ press coverage (which in itself is unusual), and (c) bootstrap a mailing list for monitoring and responding to attacks on free speech. To say nothing of (d) really pissing off the anti-porn protestors (who didn't seem to realise that a torchlit procession accompanied by drummers followed by a book and magazine burning might _just_ push the wrong buttons in the public consciousness).

The point of all this? There've been any number of "pornography causes violence" scares in the media, but relatively little research that's shown even a tenuous link, much less a causal one, between use of porn and violence against women. This, however, isn't enough to prevent people who are defensive and feel threatened from trying to get something they think is threatening them banned. If you spot such a witch-hunt forming early enough you can defuse it efficiently with relatively little work; but if not, the consequences can be disastrous because sooner or later some public event (say, a rapist trying to excuse their actions by saying "pornography made me do it") will make good headlines, and indirectly rally public opinion behind the pressure group, who will then get their own way (and in this instance get local laws passed that drive an 18-wheeler through the right to freedom of expression).

Now stop and think about what other angry little pressure groups of insecure people are forming in your vicinity. GM crops? Check. Religion? Check. Abortion? Check. Contraceptive advice for teenagers? Check. Food safety? Check. Car safety? Check. Gun safety? Check. Violence against (women|gays|blacks|pensioners|the disabled|the enabled|anyone)? Check. Burglary? Check.

_Anything_ can serve as a nucleus for a pressure group to form around. And the real danger is that in the era of automated surveillance and mandated legal response that lies ahead, these will give rise to a headless dictatorship.