Monday, June 10, 2013

Krugman on authoritarian surveillance

“…there are different kinds of surveillance states. You can have a democratic surveillance state which collects as little data as possible and tells you as much as possible about what it’s doing. Or you could have an authoritarian surveillance state which collects as much as possible and tells the public as little as possible. And we are kind of on the authoritarian side.”
I remain hopeful about all this in this sense: I don't think we're in an Orwellian world in the sense that anyone so far - Bush or Obama - has any desire at all to exercise any kind of fascistic control over the public. What Obama has is a desire to effectively prosecute the war on terrorism. That's a good thing. But it's coming in the context of changing technology that security agencies find incredibly tempting. So where is my sense of hope coming from? There's an iterative process in liberal democracies that corrects these problems. We don't live in a society and under institutions that are constantly trying to grind us down into a state of tyranny. We live in a society where most people and most leaders have good intentions and strong institutions force them to reevaluate and reform when outcomes don't match intentions (indeed that's a good definition of "strong institutions".

The machinery of freedom required for the correction are things like vigorous elections, an independent press, an active judiciary dedicated to the defense of the Constitution, decentralization of power, and decentralization of information through whistleblowers and social media.

I think the next steps are going to be "within the system" which is likely to frustrate a lot of people - we need people to bring suits and have the courts look more closely at this. And we need angry representatives in Congress to hold hearings. Also more exposes in the news. And then we need some elections. History suggests the system works. I don't think there will be some kind of radical change and I think a lot of it will work "within the system" like this and that's going to lead a lot of people to think that people don't really care or nothing's being done, but that's not really true.

Krugman is right - this is the stuff of authoritarian surveillance. Our advantage is that we don't have authoritarian traditions or institutions, and for that reason I think we'll do alright in the end.

Also this from Kieran Healy.


  1. Mike Konczal makes a similar point (cant find the Kurgman quote)

  2. Well said. In the midst of a lot of emotion, anger, and defensiveness on this issue the past few days, it's good to see such a clear and reasoned post on the topic.

  3. I'm not sure there is much cause for optimism in this area.

    The good faith exception means that if police officers acted in good faith, evidence they collected cannot be excluded. The qualified immunity rule says that if a government official violated your rights in a way that was not clearly established at the time, they are immune from lawsuit.

    Between those two rules, there is very little incentive to challenge the government spying on you if what they did was ever declared legal by SCOTUS. On the other hand, the government can try again and again at little expense to chip away at established constitutional rights. (And prosecutors have every incentive to do so. They have absolute immunity.) In other words, jurisprudence is mostly a one-way ratchet towards the government being able to spy on you more and more.

    As for the other branches, look at the way this has worked here. This program went on for 7 years before we found out. Even if something is done about it, it won't be long before another law open to secret abuse will be passed by the legislature. After all, how hard can it be to abuse the law when you do so in secret?

    I think the trajectory is of things getting worst and worst in the area of surveillance.

    1. Ya there will be other abuses and then those will be rectified - but looking at the whole sweep of history I think there's cause for optimism within these institutions. We used to own human beings, after all.

      There have got to be plenty of public-interest minded lawyers out there that would bring these cases. Even if an individual can't hope to benefit or even if we can't ever punish anyone for the reasons you lay out, we could at least get a ruling. And who knows - maybe that ruling would come with an overturning of qualified immunity rules. These rules to get revised and rewritten after all - that's how they came about in the first place.

    2. As I noted in the post - don't be optimistic in the sense of expecting a quick, clean slate, not-messy solution that will make everything perfect.

      Be optimistic in the sense that good institutions have a way of working problems out, and by all indications we have good institutions for that sort of thing. It's a robust society we live in.

    3. I was only speaking about surveillance and privacy rights.

      I think our institutions are very good at some things and not very good at others.

      My prediction is that in 50 years, our privacy rights will be further eroded, our free speech rights will be more robust, economic regulation will be more intrusive and more damaging, more minority groups will acceed to equality before the law, our due process rights will be further eroded and the war on drug will have diminished in intensity and scope.

      Mostly good things, but definitely some bad things too. I think it would be quite weird if our institutions only created good trends.

  4. Obama's desires are beside the point (and would be difficult to demonstrate even if they were important). It is solely and exclusively the objective and observable actions of the POTUS and the various members of the executive branch that are important.

    ~Our advantage is that we don't have authoritarian traditions or institutions...~

    I beg to differ. Some of our traditions and institutions have this aspect to them and some do not. I mean it is hard to think of Hoover's time as head of the FBI without the term "authoritarian" coming to mind.

    Anyway, this is one of a series of revelations going back to at least the formation of what we think of as the modern national security complex going at the genesis of the Cold War. Consider the advent of the State Secrets Privilege with U.S. vs. Reynolds (1953) and the later revelations following its promulgation and you'll see what I mean.

  5. The problem is misuse of the information. We can try to avoid misuse by avoiding collecting information all together. We do not appear to have had any examples of this information being misused. On the other hand, routine prosecutorial powers seem to be frequently abused in open court.

    It seems to me that it would be much more fruitful to have an open public debate about how to avoid abuses like those of J. Edgar Hoover than to throw the baby out with the bathwater and foreswear potentially useful methodologies.

  6. Where does Krugman say this, Daniel? I read the entire internet in the airport today and didn't see it.

  7. Daniel Kuehn: Have you seen Daniel Ellsberg's piece in The Guardian commenting on the NSA/PRISM/Edward Snowden affair?

  8. I think it's very unlikely that governments will stop collecting this information. As I said before it's been going on for decades now.

    I remember a friend of mine describing the incredible technical achievements of the early packet-inspection systems used in the UK (by the British and Americans) in ~2002. It's not easy to examine a large percentage of all internet traffic, but it was done. It's perhaps no longer done today, but direct connections to large corporate databases have replaced it.

    Going back even further to the 80s all international telephone calls used to be monitored even if they weren't recorded. Another engineer once described to me how every international fax is sent to various intelligence authorities. This caused great problems for satellite designers who had to build every comms satellite to receive data from one place but to relay it to two different groundstations. One of those groundstations would be owned by the telecoms company and the other would be there for government monitoring.

    It is possible though that this technology is more of a risk to the powerful than anyone else, as Tyler Cowen pointed out recently. In that case parliaments may have self-interested reasons to limit it.

  9. Surveillance breeds conformity, not necessarily to morally-appropriate standards of behavior, but to whatever happen to be the popular norms of the time. This is the causal efficacy of "the social" on our behavior, even if those who are watching are trustworthy with good intentions. This is a real danger for the next 50-100 years (it will be an odd bedfellow with the growing intellectual demands for cosmopolitan governance).

  10. Oh the YouTube clip didn't come through on my iPhone...never mind Daniel.


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