The Paradox of the Uberveillance Equation

By on June 29th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Magazine Articles, Privacy & Security

Members of the “Internet Governance, Security, Privacy and the Ethical Dimension of ICTs in 2030” Panel at the 2016 WSIS Forum. The author of this article, MG Michael, is at far left.

This report was written at the conclusion of the 2016 World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) Forum, summarizing my thoughts around the panel theme: “Internet Governance, Security, Privacy and the Ethical Dimension of ICTs in 2030” [1][2][3].

My research on the subject of uberveillance was entirely relevant when addressing the idea of an Internet of Things and People (IoTaP), where individuals might well become the most important node to any future system, as they seamlessly interact with other individuals and machines. I have spent the greater part of the last 15 years investigating the potential for microchip technology being embedded into bodies for the purposes of 24/7 tracking, monitoring, and locating humans. I, like many others, believe that this may well be where we are headed in the future. Although the desire to act sustainably governs much of the rhetoric of microchipping people in terms of preventative health and finite natural resources, my stance is categorically that this is the wrong path to take. However it is the technological trajectory that now seems set to play out, be it by innovative companies who see the potential for global profits and reach “for good,” or be it by totalitarian government regimes who hope to control a populace “for bad.”

On the surface, the argument to ID every individual on earth seems ethical, if not honorable. A utopian way of life on earth where all food resources are divided equally – as Karl Marx would have it – would exist for the common good, adopting a utilitarian approach. In actuality, the danger with such a vision of “heaven on earth” is that we will lend ourselves to even greater scrutiny, and even greater surveillance, where a total loss of freedom is experienced – the right to think and to choose for oneself.

The two main implications of IoTaP have to do with key questions of identity and relationships, the very things that have allowed us to maintain some semblance of “life” as we know it. Identity is the quality of being ourselves, and the ability to relate to each other with empathy. All this technology, with its promises and potentialities, is no doubt something to ponder, but does not guarantee, in any way, “a better future.” If anything, we are already seeing the impact of technologies with youth – information overload, addictions, even depression. The fragility of the electronic world also means that mission critical systems should never ever be adopted blindly. They will ultimately fail at some point in time, and when they do, we should know what to do without them. Our environment and our landscape are also changing as a result of rigorous adoption of technologies – we seek to sustain, and yet we are at times obviously spoiling the natural beauty we have been endowed with preserving. It is such a paradox. We seek to conserve but in conserving we must destroy to “keep” it forever. Our hard skills are also being compromised. We are forgetting what it is like to toil with our hands. All answers are available over the Internet, or so we are led to believe. The average child is exposed to evil decades sooner, and we struggle to parent in ways that allow for the endurance of the human spirit.

In 2006, when I coined the term uberveillance there had been rumblings about embedded surveillance devices (ESDs) through a company called Verichip at the turn of the millennium. I had watched with some interest as electronic ID systems for animals were introduced in the European Union, and it did not take long (as I had predicted) for these identification devices to find themselves in people. Today there is a subculture of implantees, and a number of high-profile RFID implant services. Companies that manufacture RFID tags and transponders for implantation number in the dozens now. In fact, whether you are a box, an animal, or a person, a sterile tag can be placed almost anywhere. So it is no longer a long-term trajectory. We are here, now. And we have to talk about what it means to not only wear computers, but to bear them in our bodies. I have studied radio-frequency identification implants for ID, for access control, for e-payment, for location tracking. More complex technologies used in biomedical devices have also been touted as solutions for diagnostic personal health applications. Brain implants are promoted that stimulate nerves and parts of the brain to help for pain relief, stabilize feelings of depression, or reinstate balance, movement, and function in people who suffer from a variety of syndromes. We are no doubt at a brilliant time of discovery, but we can also be said to be playing with fire. Implants for prosthesis are not only real but are now being considered for non-medical applications. First security, then enhancement, and then amplification… yes we are etching ever closer to that singularity.

No one would disagree that technology has had unimaginable positive impacts on our world. Look at the invention of the wheel (around 35 000 BC, but more vitally the wheel-axel concept), and the control of fire probably as early as 400 000 years ago. Both of these events were two of the great turning points in our common history. But technology from that time onwards and until recent times was always working for the benefit and in synergy with its creators; it was at our service, even during the industrial revolution it was all about making the machinery used by humans more efficient. An example is the James Watt steam engine. Now we are witnessing a situation where we are increasingly becoming slaves to the very things we create, either by giving machinery extreme decision making processes, or by in fact becoming addicted to technology. We are finding it ever more difficult to make autonomous decisions or to even communicate with each other. We have evolved to principally communicate with each other by literally facing into the eyes of the other, a unique physiology amongst primates. Gazing into a blue screen for hour upon hour without any authentic human contact is both unnatural and soul destroying. At the same time, removing ourselves so completely from means and processes of production where automation or robotics are in control is also spirit destroying.

Technology is also not neutral. Technology as neutral is usually the mantra from sources that have much to gain from exploiting not only the worker but also the consumer. From the moment something is created, it is imbued with the intents and purposes of the builder. But even if we were not to accept this, technology itself by its very nature creates a technological elite with different levels of entry and access to the technology. And that in itself raises many ethical questions about rules and standards of behavior, about how new technological innovations are not only to be used but also released into our societies. Who are the real beneficiaries? The divide between the haves and have nots has only been increasing. Yes technology has been awesome, especially in the fields of medicine and education and business, but despite these dreamlike productions, hundreds of children die from malnutrition and related pathologies every few minutes. It is hardly imaginable that technology will fix the problem we have not addressed, the underlying human geopolitical issues that dog our society at large. Yet we are all supposed to be excited at the very same time by Google and Facebook innovations towards transhumanist ideals — singularity chips, telepathic telecommunications, a laptop per person — as if that will solve world hunger.

Have we completely lost our senses? Sometimes, it seems that way. Yes…yes… hot air balloons to create wifi hotspots all over the planet, for the powerful to continue to oversee the actions of the powerless. We are not just data for the building of enterprise software, nor irrelevant entities in the building of information banks; big data without big judgement from humans is not only dangerous but also shockingly heinous and very limited. It does not serve the weak, it simply fuels the overseers with more energy and amplitude.

So, there is an obvious digital divide between the haves and have nots. If we keep going the way we are, we are set to increase that digital divide even further, and worse still, introduce layers upon layers of divides. Those who flip the switch to “on” will be carefully measuring all things, and based on those measurements we will be judged. The machine will decide for the first time what our health insurance premiums should be, whether or not we should marry and have kids, and whether or not we should become pilots or garbage collectors. Spontaneity and the ability to grow as a person will have been diminished. Some places on earth, because of their “value” in dollars will also become downtrodden – they will become wastelands for the destitute who didn’t comply with the system, or just didn’t compute. Most of the modern world will be worried about cost savings in resources, process savings in operational works, and the most efficient way of doing things. The joys of living as a unique human being might well be lost in a series of optimizations. Instead of bringing harmony, the implants will bring more divisions among peoples – spiritual, philosophical, cultural, ideological, politlcal, and indeed economic. Such is the paradox of uberveillance.

I am above all sensitive to the increasing waste of the loss of our privacy, our right to be let alone, to sin (that is to fall short of those marks we have set ourselves), and to be redeemed outside any covert or overt gaze. Of course, I am all too aware of the privacy versus security debate in which I am involved. The loss of privacy is not commensurate to the increases in security. But for the moment, I am interested in sharing with you one or two of the more serious implications of this mass surveillance. Uberveillance, when it is injected into our bodies for the purposes of 24/7 tracking, locating, and monitoring, is lethal. Data, which incidentally as we already know, can be too easily manipulated and corrupted. This mass surveillance has serious implications one way or another, for many of us. It can affect our mental health with devastating consequences. The knowledge that we might also be under constant scrutiny can also put limits and margins on our natural biological impulses to act spontaneously and to give free reign to our imaginations, and also to say and to express what we truly believe. This sort of self-censorship has, for example, been openly discussed by many prominent writers and academics. There is the fear of punishment or being ostracized from our communities. We are more and more living and existing in a theater, surrounded by cameras – surveillance cameras – and we are each compelled to play a part, any part, anything but to be ourselves.

Ultimately, if we exclude the legitimate uses of surveillance whether to do with national security or crime for instance, surveillance is strongly impelled for control by a powerful elite, and in the monetizing of people to gaze into their lives, to literally get into their heads. It is driven to advertise to us, to sell us redundant products that come with lots of promises that we may continually fill the information silos to the highest bidder. Not only is this a question of human rights, but also one of identity. To be stripped of privacy has terrible ontological and metaphysical implications.

Finally, ethics (rules or standards of behavior) are not irrelevant when it comes to the technologies we introduce into our lives. The ethics we promote that determine our responses and acts are vital. Technology has to be scrutinized by ethical concerns, for technology is not neutral, it is imbued with the spirit and intentions of its builders. And even if you were to disagree with this connection, technology does create a technological elite with superior access to these new technologies, widening the gap between the haves and have nots. Is this not an ethical question of the irregular placement and uses of power? If we continue on this track, the abuse and misuse of surveillance, a vital component of the new technologies, will help greatly to realize the worst of what we find in our dystopian literature, which has been increasingly cited in such meetings as ours in recent years.

In actual fact, our freedoms are being impinged. We are losing our ability to make decisions for ourselves, to make a choice based on our preferences, not imposed by computer systems. It is akin to a loss of our human rights and our dignity, and we too are being reduced to the same “level” as the machine. Sadly, the Internet of Things and People mantra denigrates “People” to “Things”; the “Subjects” are on an equal playing field with “Objects.” And that is just not right. Humans are not things. They are unique individuals with spirits and the ability to think creatively. We are not 1s and Os and never will be.


MG Michael is an honorary associate professor in the School of Computing and Information Technology at the University of Wollongong, Australia.