Modification of Dangers to Human Rights in Interventionist Society

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Elvert Barnes via flickr || Creative Commons

Interventionist society refers to the current state of affairs where the scope of privacy of an individual is rapidly diminishing. The phenomenon has been accelerated by the 9/11 event: the introduction of Homeland Security Act and creation of the correspondent agency in the U.S. has by far extended the borders of America. The EU’s establishment-promoted ACTA (actually aimed at physical search and seizure procedures against Internet community) was a carbon-copy of American concept of conspiracy (in criminal law) and it took significant efforts by democratic community of Europe to send the proposed legislation into a trash-bin.

It has to be noted that the tendencies towards greater intrusion into people’s privacy were visible well before 9/11 and can be imagined even without the elements of its influence. The transition to e-prescriptions that replace the paper ones, online banking, paying taxes and casting votes on parliamentary elections using digitally produced personal signatures etc. – these are daily routines in Estonia and will be rather sooner than later in other parts of the Western world as well.

The term “they” used in this article refers to any state or private agency involved in collecting information on and about citizens by the means of intrusion into our privacy. In this sense, there is no difference between Gestapo, FBI, and James Bond. To avoid emotional allusions I tried to avoid infamous term “Big Brother” that has definitely negative connotation I do not want to evoke.

Post-Modern Surveillance 

Since the very dawn of secret policing (form the times of Walsingham in Elizabeth I’s government), one of its roles has been the discrete, invisible, and fundamentally confidential watching, eavesdropping, and correspondence reading of, firstly, political opponents, and later, of almost all citizens (like in totalitarian regimes by NKVD, SS, and Gestapo, but also – by J.Edgar Hoover’s establishment as well). In modern days, the type of information that is considered by the individuals as concealed and confidential feeds most of the modern journalism (understood also as business). A reminder: in the Clarence Thomas confirmation case (masterfully presided over by Joe Biden, then a senator) the least important item seemed to be what is Thomas’ legal philosophy and judgemental record, but whether there was a pubic hair in Anita Hill’s can of soda.

To make it short, we have generally some experience and some comfort while thinking (or even knowing) about the fact that there is always somewhere somebody who follows us, peaks over our shoulder, and knows our favorite ways of performing sex. After all, we have read Orwell’s 1984 and we realize that that was not such a horrible book in comparison with The Animal Farm.

The First Part of the Curve 

The known experiences of European societies under totalitarian regimes demonstrate that the gradual increase of information collecting resources (number of agents, reports, the improvement of technical devices, re-arrangement of information processing – like shifting from Bertillion-system to dactyloscopy etc.) will lead to the increased volumes of information gained. Simply put, the improvement of information collecting devices makes the collector (hence the government) more informed

Stalin-Borman exception. Like any other dictator, Stalin ran next to the official and huge NKVD his own little intelligence agency. It consisted of just one agent – Martin Borman, whose information before the Kursk battle and during the offenisves from the fall of 1944 outplayed volumes of reports of other agents. But this is an exception – Stalin-Borman relationship was based upon mutual trust and did not have anything to do with internal policies where the drama of human rights is played out.

1One of the analytical tools of the general rule of normal distribution is the Laffer curve. When applied to the tax system it states that the higher the tax rate (and we may add, the better they are collected and the less loopholes in the system), the larger amounts of revenue will be collected and transferred to the federal budget. This is presented by the left side of the curve. But there is also a point at T R(max) on that curve after which the additional influx of revenue starts to go down (even though the tax rates are still being increased up to 100 points on the presented graph).

In the analyzed perspective, this means that after reaching a certain point the further increase of information (i.e. putting out more agents, listening to more phone calls, reading more telegrams, increasing the budget of secret services etc.) will not increase the informedness of the “Big Brother” (whoever that might be).

The Actual Volume of Information

The actual volume of information might even increase, but staying informed – not necessarily. Let us use the Wikileaks example: although the volume of suddenly obtained (sometimes even valuable) information grew exponentially, the results of the disclosure remain minuscular until now. (I wonder whether Assange has come to the terms with the fact that most of his sufferings have turned out to be meaningless.) The “Panama Papers” caused some unpleasantness in business and political community (slightly more significant for the “yellow press”) but nothing more. In other words, the amount and size of seemingly significant information (pages, bites, files) increased but not the level of being informed. Or, more precisely, even though the amount of information increased in theory, its actual usability by those who could eventually do that did not.

The Opponent of Information

This phenomenon, caused by entropic influence is called “noise” and the fundamental truth on the 2nd law of thermodynamics for our case is expressed by the Shannon (or: Bolzmann) equation:

H(X) = E[I(X)] = E[-ln(P(X))]

Here, “H” is entropy, i.e. noise, “I” – the informational content of “X” while “X” is a random variable (or let us say, event). On the basis of this equation, we may extract its essence and apply it to the discussed topic.

The right side of the equation expressing the relation of probabilities as their multiplication means that the increase in the amount of information multiplies the noise. To put it in plain police-terminology: increasing the number of plain-coat agents and hidden microphones and cameras will lead to the increase of obstacles on the way of discovering the information that is valuable. Another result is interesting as well: the greater the number of under-cover agents, informers, and secret cameras, the greater the probability that they will be discovered or that their operations will break down. The classical example from the Estonian Secret Service history proves exactly that: after having finished eavesdroping on an official suspected of corruption, the agents forgot to remove some of their devices and had to show up in a plain daylight to ask humbly for the permission to pick up their microphones. This is a perfect illustration of the mathematics presented above.

Consequences to Human Rights

The more I am under surveillance by whatever legal or illegal authority, the smaller chance that these agents will know anything important about me. In Estonia, there is currently an ongoing criminal case in the court regarding corruption among several high-ranking individuals. The case is built on more than 20 thousand pages of recorded surveillance. Yet, the prosecution might not have any case at all because bribery requires just a couple of witnesses and some 10 paper-sheets of documentation to be proved. In other words: the enormous increase of informational data-volumes has resulted in a situation where the information has ceased to be of any value. All the terrorist attacks after 9/11 demonstrate that although all the necessary information to detect the perpetrators had been available in advance, the attacts were not detected precisely because there was too much information, most of which was redundant (thus information-like negentropy is entropy in its own turn).

There is one factor that has caused this explosion of quasi-information we now witness: cutting out the middleman, to use business terminology. Getting information out or in simply no longer requires the middleman any more than editors, publishers, printing-houses, spies, agents, informers, consultants etc. When Donald Trump wants to say something, he uses Twitter. So do I and millions of other people. But this means that the uncontrolled flow messages of billions of people fills up all the informational space any human being (secret service agents included) is able to grasp. The old rule (the darkest place is under the candlestick) works here as well: if you want some information not to be noticed, post it on the Internet.

It is very likely that we are constantly under surveillance. But do not worry, either the information is not that visible in light of the huge amounts of information available at hand anyway, or nobody knows what to do with it. My conclusion here is perhaps slightly paradoxical: the more surveillance, the more freedom. This is not an Orwellian statement that intends to change the meaning of the word but solely an objective observation derived from Laffer’s and Shannon’s mathematics.

Still, a words of caution is necessary. It is not all sunshine and daisies for citizens (and their human rights) and only problems for secret services. It is not the human rights’ issue in modern society how much and by which methods the information about the people is collected (the answer is – all information available and by all means possible) but about how the information is used. The problem is not what “they” know about me but how and to what purpose that knowledge might be used. To help me (by providing my physician with my medical records, by sending me a sales’ catalogue or a newsletter I might be interested in, to inform me by customizing my data-flow) or to surpress me by blackmailing me, exploiting my weakneses, destroying my personal life, intervening into my employment etc. And this is exactly when the issues related to human rights enter the spotlight.

Igor Grazin
Academy of Liberalism