Saturday, October 19, 2013

Dr Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and (almost) Love the Surveillance.

Imagine for a while that you lived in a city with no modern facilities. Food was gathered through communal efforts, where there was a direct link between what you could find and what you could consume. People lived in small huts. Heat was produced and absorbed from small fireplaces. Water was collected from dedicated collectors, hanging between the huts. You get the idea, total hippie-ville. Your location within this city of dirty feet does not matter, but let’s say you live in the middle. Smack in the epicenter of hippie tobacco-scented dreams. Your name is Bob. Hi, Bob. You have a friend called Garry. Where Garry lives matters not, but let’s pretend he lives in the outskirts of town. One day you notice that you are running low on firewood. Not good, since you need the firewood to cook your stew. You decide to ask Garry for some, and prepare for the walk to his hut. Remember, you can’t just call Garry, so you have to track there. On your way, you pass about 10 huts. As it is in the middle of the day, people are outside enjoying the sun. You say hello to all your friends, namely Maria, Sarah, Evan and Tom. You also pass four or five that you do not know by name, but recognize. In addition, you pass a sketchy figure who you have never seen before, and, quite frankly, hope to never see again.

When you finally make it to your friend’s hut, you realize he is not home. What a waste of perfectly good slacker time! You turn around and go home, passing all the same figures, as well as another sketchy dude, who has joined up with that other sketchy dude who you have now had the questionable pleasure of seeing twice. But all is still well in your little corner of the world. You enter your hut, sit down, have some tea and let your brain analyze what has just happened. On your way to Garry’s hut, you passed by four friends, four acquaintances and two sketchy figures in strange clothing, passing most of them twice; one time on your way there, and one time on your way home. As you analyze the situation, you worry about those unknown characters who forced themselves into your life by appearing in a most unexpected location. Who were they? What did they want? Why were they there?

As the golden sky turns purple, your concern turns into fear. Just as the light of day is lost, so, too, is your calm. You wander about in your hut, shaking your head; “How could I be so careless? Why did I take that path and not my secret path that goes underneath the village”. Did I forget to tell you about the secret path? Oh, ok, well, there is a secret path. There. I just created that out of thin air. Deal with it. Suddenly, you hear a knock on the door. It is not just any knock, it is your secret knock-signal. You know it is Garry’s knock, and you open the door. To your surprise, Garry appears as upset as you are. He yells, carefully muffled through a whisper; “Bob! Oh, Bob! Why did you not take the secret path? Today I noticed two people I do not know wandering about outside my hut. How did they find my hut? You must have lead them there!”. As his weary eyes scan your face, as if to detect remorse, you realize what you have done. Not only have you compromised your own security, you have now pushed your friend into harm’s way. And for what? All you wanted was some firewood. You could have easily asked a neighbor nearby. Why did you go through all that trouble? You are almost as baffled by your own neglect, as you are by the appearance of two strange figures behind Garry. “Who are you? What do you want?”, you yell out. The men remain silent. Ear-deafening silent. Just as sudden as they never spoke, they leave. Left behind are two very concerned hippies, san-firewood, and the night is coming.

Without firewood, there will be no way to see, and without vision, anything could happen. So, what do our friends Bob and Garry do? The only sensible thing. They hide under their blanket until dawn pierces through their fear and thaws enough hope to make them venture outside again. They decide to go to Garry’s place to get some firewood, so as to make sure this never happens again. Strangely, all the acquaintances are gone. The village appears almost empty. When they approach Garry’s place they realize what has happened; someone has taken all the firewood. Left behind are two diseased men, in strange looking attire. As if they were from some strange land far away. It appears the two figures in strange clothing were trying to protect Garry’s firewood. Unfortunately, they were not strong enough in numbers to stop the ongoing robbery-turned-homicide.

As Garry and Bob weep for their newly diseased friends, they start arguing about who of them is to blame. Was it Bob for having shown the way to the hut? Was it Garry for leaving his house in plain sight, thus enabling the robbers to choose his hut over all the other huts, as a reasonable target for theft? Was it both of them for not having taken the secret path, that only passes by the huts of friends? From underneath the blanket, they argue all day and all night. The following morning, just in time for the swallows to start target-practice on the hut’s roof with remains gathered at various places around the village, they realize they do not have enough data to decide what would have been the ideal path. On one hand, they trust their friends. However, they do not know who their friends have befriended, and how many degrees of separation there exists from them to possible bystanders on the secret path. They also come to terms with the fact that it is impossible to know what made the murderers-to-be choose Garry’s hut. The most chilling realization, however, was that they had completely misjudged the two strange-looking men, who appears to have put up a brave fight on their behalf. Perhaps they only came to the hut to warn us, Bob gasps. Perhaps, his friend signals by calmly nodding, filled with a sudden onset of remorse.

The more they think about it, the more they agree that the unknown factor was not the sketchy figures around whom they treaded carefully and suspiciously. Nor was it their friends, whom they trust completely. It appears the problem was one of falsely assuming security where there was none; among acquaintances. It is likely one of the robbers were from that group. People they know just enough to not know at all. So, is there a point to this story? Well.

The trojan horses of our modern society are human. Make no mistake. The worst computer virus does not come as an attachment in an email. It comes from human interaction. It comes from the brain’s inept ability to separate close friends from faces we see daily. This is the same mechanism that makes some of us weep when a celebrity whom we have never met, takes his last breath on a sidewalk in Hollywood, or her last drink in Camden town. Our brains have evolved during a time when anyone you saw frequently was a friend, not foe. We have simply not evolved much since technology took off like a rocket on an epic journey, destination unknown. Daily, on TV, radio and the Internet, we are fed information about whom to trust. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Everywhere are we made part of a full-blown orgy of false trust. At the same time, we are warned about governments listening in on our phone calls, emails and on our credit card purchases. Yes, this is scary. No, it is not the biggest problem out there. Take the village for example. Whenever you walk somewhere, you can be watched by hundreds of people, just the same as when you visit a website in Kazakhstan, or, if you live in Kazakhstan; somewhere else. The real problem is not the enemy you expect, in strange attire or government suits.

The real foe is those that you expect to be good, namely acquaintances. It is much more likely someone in your close physical (or virtual) proximity will hurt you, than that a government will, unless you are up to some seriously dubious activities, in which case, best of luck. Why is this? Well, it is logical really. Say there is a web of trust between Garry and Bob. Anything Bob says to Garry, he expects Garry to keep secret. Garry, on the other hand, trusts Lisa and knows that she would never tell anyone. So, he tells Lisa about the things he is worried about regarding Bob. Lisa has never met Bob, but trusts Maria (and so on, and so forth). This happens on Facebook daily when people share things publicly. It also happens when we talk in a store and someone accidentally listens in. In short, it happens all the freakin’ time, everywhere! It is not something that started happening with the Internet, it has always been the case as it is human nature to apply trust, and subsequently promote future trust by sharing additional information. Without fail, however, you will eventually reach enough degrees of separation for the data to be compromised by someone or something. Since there is only one government per country (usually), but there are literally millions of people if you combine the paths on social networks that any piece of information could potentially travel, it is far more likely that your information will get compromised by sharing it with friends, rather than by sharing it with foes (the government). Especially when the motives of the government remains unclear, but we know a lot about the motives of people, who act predictably and not according to military doctrine (which is very complex in comparison, and rarely, if ever, logical from our perspective).

So, I, for one, have decided to stop worrying and almost love the surveillance, or at least hate it a bit less. Sure, it may not be ideal, but neither are people, and I know more people than I know governments. All of the people I know of who have been put behind bars, have been so for having spoken on public networks or on the phone; not because the government has cracked their encryption. We all make mistakes, but when we assume we are safe, that is when we are the most vulnerable.



  1. you nailed the question of who's really a peeping Tom, beautifully. My sentiments exactly. Thanks for sharing.