Technologists and the values of the surveillance state.

Along with yesterday’s revelations, Bruce Schneier writes in the Guardian :

Again, the politics of this is a bigger task than the engineering, but the engineering is critical. We need to demand that real technologists be involved in any key government decision making on these issues. We’ve had enough of lawyers and politicians not fully understanding technology; we need technologists at the table when we build tech policy.

What Schneier is getting at is, of course, important: Policy-makers need to understand the technology they’re messing around with, and they need to understand the impact of their decisions.  Technologists might be able to help them understand those points.

But that is too short-sighted: If anything, we’re seeing over and over again that the NSA, and plenty of policy-makers, understand the possibilities of a global network perfectly well — and have learned to wield their resources to turn it into a global instrument of surveillance. With an estimated three billion users of the global Internet (four billion to go, though), the surveillance debate has long transcended the world of just us technologists. And with an estimated three billion users of the global Internet, the notion that technologists can simply “take back the network” tastes of techno-idealism and techno-elitism — however much, as somebody working on Internet and Web technology, I might like that idea.

The conflict that we’re living through now is more fundamental. It is about the vision we have of a networked society.

In the vision that many of us have been working towards (and that is, in various ways, at the intellectual roots of the Internet), we get the benefits of increasingly seamless communication and collaboration, we get exposure to other views, we have the knowledge and tools available that make us more creative and more productive, that bring us closer to other human beings, and improve our understanding of each other. In this vision, the network turns our society into a better one.  In this vision, we can have trust in the network. In this vision, we can use the network to communicate with our loved ones. In this vision, we can trust the network with our private life and personal secrets. Geopolitically, this Internet is a network that (as a very smart man once put it) serves as a powerful projection of Western values and a civil society across the world. This is for everyone.

We are learning this summer that the network that we have actually built has become a Trojan horse, inspired by a dark and dystopian view of humanity: The dangerous species homo sapiens cannot be trusted with fast, private, perhaps anonymous communication at scale. Communication (a fundamental piece of what makes us human!) needs to be domesticated, for feral communication (and humanity) bears uncontrollable risks.

We are learning this summer that the hidden domestication of communications technology hasn’t just taken the form of attacks on crypto systems or endpoints or network hardware (all of which we would expect): Instead, what we see is an assertion of the primacy of surveillance in the design, deployment, and operation of Internet technologies at global scale, at the expense of the security and privacy of their civilian users.

The crossroads that policy-makers are at is less about understanding technology: It is about understanding that the design of technology is never simply value-neutral.  It is about choosing the values that we embed into the technology we build and deploy.

Are these still the values of an open society? Or are they the values of the oppressive surveillance state?

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