Commentary by Lenko Grigorov
It's been quite fascinating for me to keep hearing yet newer revelations these past weeks about extensive spying programs run by the governments of the so called "free" countries: USA, UK, Canada, France... all of them bastions of liberty.
The fascination comes from the fact that we have all heard this before; 25 years ago, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Is it that the West has finally smartened up and has seen that the spying programs of the East are actually a good thing? I doubt it. My best guess is that the politically influential people nowadays are too young to have sufficient experience with and understanding of the McCarthy period or the security agencies of the former Soviet block. Thus, it has become politically and morally acceptable to authorize mass surveillance of ordinary citizens. I grew up in a country with extensive surveillance operations, however, I too were too young to understand how society coped with this. Let me posit here, though, that society did cope with it one way or another. Extensive spying programs don't necessarily imply a total meltdown of all everything as we know it.
Should we accept the modern-day mass surveillance operations? I personally don't. There are two main reasons why modern-day spying is significantly different (and worse) than the programs from 25 years ago:
- Nowadays less resources are required. In the yesteryears, someone had to physically perform the spying: track, hide, take notes, etc. Modern spying just requires network links to all electronic systems used by the public and the information simply flows in.
- Nowadays the information is stored virtually. There is no need anymore for massive folders filled with notes written on paper, with clipped photographs. Modern surveillance data are collected, sorted and stored all electronically. For example, in the past, if someone wanted to take off with all the data for the residents of a town, they would need a truck to transport all the files. Nowadays, all one needs is a USB drive.
Lessons from the past have not been learned. The fact that the collected information is not only centralized but also easily replicated is a disaster waiting to happen. It is quite feasible that sensitive data will end in the wrong hands; and I'm confident that it eventually will.
I'm also confident that these spying programs will eventually be dismantled. For one, personally I don't believe that big data will prove to be as useful as its proponents claim. The algorithms and models required for big data analysis are too complex and not well understood. Second, the proponents forget that once mass spying programs get going, they evolve into monsters when everyone is spied upon, including the spies. At some point, influential people will realize this and not like it.
...Until then, in 1984.
— London, ON, Jul 2013