23 Jan 2014

Why the row over spying is about human nature, not metadata

For all the bamboozling hi-tech talk of “meta-data” and “bulk traffic collection”, the row over spy agencies’ electronic snooping comes down to two competing views of human nature.


Political theorists have speculated for centuries about how people would behave in a “state of nature”, i.e. left to themselves in a mythical land of plenty. Thinkers like Rousseau believed we’d rub along just fine. Thinkers like Hobbes reckoned we’d tear each other apart.

How does this relate to electronic surveillance? Well, if you side with Rousseau you see little point in monitoring everyone, because wrongdoing is an aberration and the majority of people will happily obey the rules.

If you side with Hobbes, you believe that at heart humans are a warlike and greedy bunch, so it’s probably worth keeping an eye on everyone, to catch people before they turn nasty.

The 9/11 terror attacks gave a boost to the Hobbesians. To many people, America’s aggressors seemed to arrive suddenly and unexpectedly, and there was a pervading sense that the enemy was an insidious force that could be lurking, unsuspected, in any neighbourhood.

More from Channel 4 News: What GCHQ knows about us

This led to a massive expansion of surveillance powers as America’s law enforcement and intelligence services fought to understand a new and asymmetric threat.

Barack Obama‘s announcement on Friday is evidence that the pendulum is starting to swing the other way, and that those who would monitor all of us all the time are increasingly required to justify that behaviour.

Our view of human nature not only helps inform this debate: it can help us make decisions about specific actions. For example, America’s National Security Agency has been accused of cracking the encryption standards used to encode our emails. Personally, I think that’s acceptable, because it’s likely that those who would do us harm will seek to use encryption to hide their communications. Giving law enforcement the ability to monitor that traffic seems sensible.

Cracking encryption does not assume that anyone, at any time, can suddenly turn bad. It gives states the ability to monitor those they suspect may have malicious intent.

However, the mass collection of innocent people’s data, to be stored for future access, is an essentially Hobbesian activity, for it assumes that on the balance of probabilities enough people are going to turn out to be evil to justify the harvesting of their traffic.

As the electronic surveillance tussles continue, we’re not going to decide once and for all which view of human nature is correct; it’s a broad spectrum of belief and there are many position on it for us to occupy. But let’s hope we don’t lose sight of it as a fundamental part of the discussion.

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