I’d like to change how we talk about these issues. Let’s accept, for one minute, we need a surveillance state. Let’s accept – to use Doctorow’s terminology – that high-ranking secretive officials of our democratic administrations should have the right to watch what we’re doing, even whilst we are doing something as private as going to the toilet.
On shifting the frame of the surveillance-state debate, my issue would no longer be with these matters as described above. No longer would I worry about the rights and wrongs of invading our privacy; of needing to properly understand the difference between democratic privacy and criminal secrecy; of disentangling the process whereby this way of defending liberal democracy – and its corresponding business practice – undermines precisely that which we claim to defend. No. The matter would become quite different; my focus quite another.
If a surveillance state is an inevitability – neither because evil is threatening to overcome our civilisation nor because the gradualists have painted us into a corner from which there is no escape but, rather, simply because maybe we all have too many freedoms to know properly what to do with them – let’s, at least for the sake of argument, assume there is nothing we can now do to stop it.
The issue is no longer prevention.
It therefore becomes a different one of implementation.
Yes. Admittedly, we are late to the game because the gradualists have done their job all too well. But that doesn’t mean we are too late to the game, nor – indeed – that we can’t amend its rules in some constructive and democratically hopeful manner.
I suggest, therefore, as a starting-point of sorts that we might want to proceed in the following way. As I tweeted this afternoon, the real serious problem of minimal democratic oversight on the kind of massive expenditure a surveillance state will always involve is the inevitable inefficiency, graft and downright corruption that comes out of any such cosy relationships framed thus.
This is why we need to shift the frame of the debate. And this is how I suggest we should do it.
It’s time we introduced the ideas of data protection, total quality management, democratic oversight, and – above all – an intrinsic value for money, back into the debate around what our spies can and can’t do. We need to get involved somehow in their processes and procedures: after all, to eliminate an evil terrorist we need surely to know how much it might cost in resource terms and whether this can be justified as a proper and correct return on our taxpayer contributions. You want the right to get rid of people extra-judicially; to keep people in prison for years; to bring down or support dictatorships; to destroy dangerous democracies? OK. That’s fine. But show me – year in, year out – you’re doing it in the most cost-effective way. No blank cheques any more. No unexamined processes and procedures. Instead, a righteous – and rightful – process whereby democracy observes and guarantees its overall value for money.
That’s where I’d like to push the surveillance state now. Proportionate; correctly administered; a technocratic revolution in everything spyworthy. Let overarching objectives and targets become the bread and butter of its practice; let productivity spreadsheets and return-on-investment become public knowledge; let spies and spooks and practitioners of our societies’ underbellies be required to emerge blinking and emboldened into the cold light of a leaner way of seeing. Ultimately, let the ways of thinking and doing the rest of us have long ago got used to be the guiding light of a new surveillance state.
You even want to watch me do my business in my figurative bathroom? Then demonstrate, prove and evidence to what degree you really are defending my personal and public integrities.
In practice; in reality; in fact and in deed.
And only when I really know, not just believe or trust to be the case, that – in exchange for losing the freedom to shit in private – I will have gained the freedom to always walk the streets safely in public … well, only then will I begin a slow, possibly painful, process of being prepared to decently accept, democratically consolidate and transparently implement this implicit compact and settlement you lay out in front of us: a compact and settlement which, over the past two decades, the gradualists have been incorrectly imposing on us – without honestly or in good faith ever drawing our political attention adequately to.
You want to control a long-ago consumer-driven world? Be prepared for such a world to verily demand its VfM!