The Misleading “National Surveillance State”

Jack has written before about what he sees as a growing “National Surveillance State,” and I thought I would explain why I think Jack is wrong.  What Jack perceives as a “National Surveillance State” is actually a shift from physical world activity to network activity that creates a false impression of increased surveillance powers.

Here’s the context.  In the old days, co-conspirators met and plotted in person, and the government  tried to find out what they were up to by trailing them in person (think “follow that car!”) or using undercover agents.  These days, though, co-conspirators more often meet and plot online: They use the Internet as a tool to bring them together without having to go and meet in person.  This creates a substitution effect: Internet technology takes what would have occurred in public or out in the open and makes it something hidden, bits and bytes crossing over computer networks.

The switch stacks the deck against the government, as it takes away the power it used to have to watch crimes and terrorist plots in the open. For the government to get back the rough degree of power it used to have in the physical world, it now needs to tap into those lines of Internet traffic to collect the information that is the equivalent of what it used to get by open-field surveillance. For example, these days collecting the IP addresses of Internet connections could be the equivalent of the G-man getting in the taxi and ordering the taxi driver to “follow that car”; in both cases, the government is getting information about the whereabouts and conduct of suspects.

To some observers, this will look like massively increased surveillance, even (to add a snappy title) a National Surveillance State.  Look, they will say, the government has added computers, and surveillance; they used to leave networks mostly alone and now they tap them.  But in truth the government will be merely getting back the kind of power it used to have before the bad guys took advantage of the Internet’s substitution effect.

Of course, different people will disagree about what powers the government should have, either in the setting of criminal law or terrorism.  And the actual translation from physical environments to virtual ones is extremely complicated.  But I think it’s quite misleading to look at the increased use of computers by the government and see this as part of a new “Surveillance State.”