The best political countersurveillance tool is to grow the heck up

The thing is, we're all naughty. The specifics of what counts as "wrong" depend on the context, but there isn't anybody on Earth so boring that haven't done or aren't doing something they'd rather not be known worldwide.

Ordinarily this just means that, as every other social species, we learn pretty early how to dissimulate. But we aren't living in an ordinary world. As our environment becomes a sensor platform with business models bolted on top of it, private companies have access to enormous amounts of information about things that were ordinarily very difficult to find, non-state actors can find even more, and the most advanced security agencies... Well. Their big problem is managing and understanding this information, not gathering it. And all of this can be done more cheaply, scalably, and just better than ever before.

Besides issues of individual privacy, this has a very dangerous effect on politics wherever it's coupled with overly strict standards: it essentially gives a certain degree of veto power over candidates to any number of non-democratic actors, from security agencies to hacker groups. As much as transparency is an integral part of democracy, we haven't yet adapted to the kind of deep but selective transparency this makes possible, the US election being but the most recent, glaring, and dangerous example.

It will happen again, it will keep happening, and the prospect of technical or legal solutions is dim. This being politics, the structural solution isn't technical, but human. While we probably aren't going to stop sustaining the fiction that we are whatever our social context considers acceptable, we do need to stop reacting to "scandals" in an indiscriminate way. There are individual advantages to doing so, of course, but the political implications of this behavior, aggregated over an entire society, are extremely deleterious.

Does this mean this anything goes? No, quite the contrary. It means we need to become better at discriminating between the embarrassing and the disqualifying, between the hurtful crime and the indiscretion, between what makes somebody dangerous to give power to, and what makes them somebody with very different and somewhat unsettling life choices. Because everybody has something "scandalous" in their lives that can and will be digged up and displayed to the world whenever it's politically convenient to somebody with the power to do it, and reacting to all of it in the same way will give enormous amounts of direct political power to organizations and individuals, everywhere and at all points in the spectrum of legality, that are among the least transparent and accountable in the world.

This means knowing the difference between the frowned upon and the evil. It's part of growing up, yet it's rarer, and more difficult, the larger and more interconnected a group becomes. Eventually the very concept of evil as something other than a faux pas disappears, and, historically, socially sanctioned totalitarianism follows because, while political power in nominally democratic societies seldom arrogates to itself the power to define what's evil, it has enormous power to change the scope of "adequate behavior."

We aren't going to shift our public morals to fully match our private behavior. We aren't really wired that way; we are social primates, and lying to each other is the way we make our societies work. But we are social primates living in an increasingly total surveillance environment vulnerable to multiple actors, a new (geo)political development with impossible technical solutions, but a very simple, very hard, and very necessary sociological fix: we just need to grow the heck up.

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