The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Logic of Surveillance

Surveillance is part of the system of control.  “The more surveillance, the more control” is the majority belief amongst the ruling elites.  Automated surveillance requires fewer “watchers”, and since the watchers cannot watch all the surveillance, long term storage increases the ability to find some “crime” anyone is guilty of.  When you add in recognition systems based on face, gait or other criteria, you have the theoretical ability to track people from the moment they leave their homes till they return.  Other measures make it possible to see what people are doing inside their own homes (IR heat maps, for example).  A world in which everyone is tracked all the time is very possible.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes

This is one of the biggest problems the current elites face: they want the smallest enforcer class possible, so as to spend surplus on other things.  The enforcer class is also insular, primarily concerned with itself (see Dorner) and is paid in large part by practical immunity to many laws and a license to abuse ordinary people.  Not being driven primarily by justice or a desire to serve the public and with a code of honor which appears to largely center around self-protection and fraternity within the enforcer class, the enforcers’ reliability is in question: they are blunt tools and their fear for themselves makes them remarkably inefficient.

Surveillance expands the reach of the enforcer class and thus of the elites.  Every camera, drone and so on reduces the number of eyes needed on the ground.  The Stasi had millions of informers; surveillance reduces that requirement and the cost of the enforcer class.

The reliance on surveillance is however a weakness, one of many.  One of the simplest ways to reduce the power and reach of the oligarchy is to destroy surveillance equipment, much of which is very easy to reach.  I have frequently said that we will know that people are becoming more serious when they start destroying surveillance equipment, when it becomes an ethical imperative to do so; ideally when people believe that blanket surveillance is an ethical wrong.

I, am, thus interested to see that the Barefoot Bandit Brigade destroying surveillance cameras.  In the US, those who oppose current elites directly seem strongest around Oakland and in the Pacific Northwest.

It is best that the surveillance system be challenged and dismantled before it becomes comprehensive; once every person is tracked all the time it will be far harder to do so, especially as audio surveillance also expands.  Once everyone is both tracked and listened to, it will be virtually impossible to organize resistance.

The comprehensive surveillance state, combined with measures to deal with the loyalty of the enforcer class, is the end game: it is where current trends lead.  It will be justified to the public as a measure to decrease crime and protect innocents (especially children), but it will lead to a more advanced Stasi state.

Note: minor edits made.


A reminder




  1. Cloud

    The enforcer class is also insular, primarily concerned with itself (see Dorner) and is paid in large part by practical immunity to many laws and a license to abuse ordinary people … with a code of honor which appears to largely center around self-protection and fraternity within the enforcer class.

    It appears so to me also. As the noir once said:

    – “Stop right where you are — you know the score, pal! If you’re not a cop, you’re little people.”
    – “No choice, huh?”
    – “No choice, pal.”

  2. Alcuin

    Michel Foucault, in his book Discipline and Punish, had a few thoughts about this …

  3. Oaktown Girl

    Yes, thank you. Exactly. It both boggles my mind and horrifies me how many so-called “liberals” are now drone apologists. The creeping surveillance state doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest. I guess it hasn’t occurred to them (or perhaps they don’t care since Dear Leader is in office?) that if we continue down this path, protest and dissent against anything will be impossible. It will be like trying to get an abortion in a right-wing state – technically legal, but impossible in actuality.

    Last week on a well-known Democratic site someone was arguing that if police helicopters are “OK”, why should we have a problem with drones? Making surveillance easier, more pervasive, and more “normalized” didn’t set off any alarm bells at all. In fact, the word “paranoia” was used.

  4. Speaking of drones and surveillance, a friend of mine was involved in the making of this(link goes to vimeo):

    I’m curious what everyone thinks.

  5. Oaktown Girl:
    Mainly it’s because it’s okay if a Democrat does it. Most of them would be PO’ed if it had happened under W. or if it happens under President Cooch(the current AG of VA). It’s tribalism at its worst.

  6. The system is increasingly digital, and it will be taken down digitally. The resistance is already isolating itself behind strong encryption. The first battles have already been fought.

  7. Celsius 233

    Phil Perspective
    February 16, 2013

    I’m curious what everyone thinks.
    Appropriately Orwellian. Well done and just subtle enough…

  8. alyosha

    One of the simplest ways to reduce the power and reach of the oligarchy is to destroy surveillance equipment, much of which is very easy to reach. I have frequently said that I will know that people are becoming more serious when they start destroying surveillance equipment…

    There will always be those who will be glad to turn in the destroyers of this equipment for a reward. It has nothing to do with whether they love the elites or conversely hate the equipment. It’s about winning the lottery, or even more base, the glee of trashing another human being, legally, with state sanction, in the name of being some sort of “patriot”.

    And so the cost of a “rewards” program has to be added to the almost negligible cost of the equipment. Still a lot cheaper than a Stasi.

  9. J. Random Hacker

    Surveillance cuts both ways. CCTV, drones, facial & licence plate recognition are ‘force multipliers’ for their owners. But over-reliance on those systems means shifting power to those who can disable or subvert those systems.

    And many of these systems aren’t well designed from an information security point of view. Anyone who understands basic infosec can compromise these systems.

  10. alyosha: “There will always be those who will be glad to turn in the destroyers of this equipment for a reward. “

    So what? That there are people willing to do it is what matters, and that was Ian’s point.

  11. Celsius 233

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: who will keep the keepers themselves?
    We’re supposed to do that; but we’ve failed.
    The beast has won; its (and it is an its) propaganda success has exceeded all expectations and in this our keepers rejoice.
    Perpetual war isn’t what one thinks (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, etc.) but rather a deflection that also includes, primarily, us.
    We’re on the front-lines and don’t even realize the gravity or intent of this “war” and thus; we lose due to apathy and willful ignorance!

  12. Celsius 233

    ^ And then, and only then, we awake to our prison. Only then it seems, we start to see the ingenious ways to circumvent the applied walls that define this prison.
    What is the mechanism which ensures our resistance always comes too late? What is it about us that seems to always miss the worst that is offered, as the best solution, to a non-problem (according to our keepers)? That the walls are always ahead of resistance?
    Are the best minds bought and payed for (I don’t believe that)? Or rather, we’re lulled by the proverbial poppy fields of security?
    There is something seriously amiss with us homo sapien sapiens…

  13. someofparts

    Oaktown girl – A friend of mine, and we are geezer boomers, had the same experience a few years ago organizing to stop a move by local government to expand the use of fingerprints for ordinary forms of ID. She couldn’t get any local lefties to see the importance. My friend wound up working with libertarians to stop the measures.

  14. ste pb

    Unequal distribution of the information from modern surveillance systems is the real problem. A surveillance system that allows full public access would be a tremendous tool of equality and would retain the positive security implications.

  15. Dandelion

    The knowledge that one is being watched also affects behavior and psyche. If freedom must first exist in the mind, the knowledge of surveillance cages that freedom. Over time, a nation’s sense of the possible changes, reduces.

  16. B J B

    J Random Hacker is correct to note that these new developments have the capability of shifting power through opening unique possibilities for resistance. However, J also demonstrates a weak understanding of the concomitant strength of the surveillance society: hyperspecialization. So, while indeed ‘all it takes’ is ‘simple knowledge’ of infosec (and access, an anonymous connection, various other computer skills and equipment, etc.), this very acknowledgement coupled with the recognition of how few people possess such necessary skills, knowledge, equipment, software and access demonstrates a structural protection against this resistance. Then there’s the psychological protection against it: the surveillance society creates the perception of universal knowledge of public activity that would challenge the development of the will to perform these hacks.

  17. Ronald Pottol

    All that will do is make the cameras smaller.

    I’d really like to see people read David Brin’s “The Transparent Society”. It came out back in 1998, and is a very though look at what real end games we have. The cameras are coming, we are headed into what Charley Stross calls “Total History”, where everything will be recorded, and accessible, forever.

    Privacy is dead (well, mortally wounded), get over it. And think about what kind of choices we DO have, because we do have choices, and they really do matter.

    Read Brin!

  18. Oaktown girl – A friend of mine, and we are geezer boomers, had the same experience a few years ago organizing to stop a move by local government to expand the use of fingerprints for ordinary forms of ID. She couldn’t get any local lefties to see the importance. My friend wound up working with libertarians to stop the measures.

    someofparts, I’ve found the same problem with self-described liberals when it comes to civil liberties in general. When a Republican is in the White House, they claim they give a shit; when a Democrat is, they don’t even pretend.

    Just as Everything Bad Under Bush is now Good Under Obama, so, too is the evisceration of our civil liberties merely cause for a big yawn by most of these so-called lefties.

  19. Ian Welsh

    I’ve read Brin. I’m afraid I believe we can make a choice. There will always be ways to detect and destroy even smaller cameras, but the real question is to make an ethical choice. The idea that technology can’t be controlled has evidence to the contrary, the most recent and spectacular of which is the Tokugawa shogunate.

    I agree that there are psychological effects, and these have been posited by sociology. Constant surveillance destroys the backstage and induces conformity. Anyone who has lived in a small village or an institution which operates like one knows the conformity which can be induced through constant surveillance. It will almost certainly, imo, have a huge negative effect on creativity.

    About to read the Praetorian class, I will point out before doing so that the historical Praetorians weren’t an elite combat unit, they were pretty awful in a real fight against real soldiers.

  20. Sam Adams

    Only a Democrat could eliminate civil liberties after Republicans hardened the opposition.

  21. defunctional dismocracy

    Aloysha is absolutely right. I would hazard that very few people willing to turn in a camera vandal are ideologues, and a small minority of those could articulate their philosophy beyond going after people who “hate America.”

    There is another motivation beyond greed, patriotism and general asshattedness: access to tiny bits of local power through nominal inclusion in the surveillance class. This is a false assumption, as very few of those within the security structure have any real control over it, but the perception of impunity affects both the actor and observers. The Zimmerman case is an example, as he had no real power as a faux cop but successfully intimidated his neighbors by appointing himself the neighborhood watch and throwing his weight around as a condo commando. He was useful to the police even though they had no respect for him, and they only cut him loose when the publicity got to be too much.

    “Stand your ground” and similar ALEC-purchased laws are intended to bolster the nerve of vigilantes by giving them the exemptions of the surveillance class without having to cut paychecks or take institutional responsibility for their actions. They have no influence over the structure of the security state but are protected from the punishments meted out to those who commit the same crimes against the privileged classes. The same can be said of most cops because they can beat up or shoot those from unexempted groups with no punishment beyond a paid vacation but have very little ability to effect change to that system. Dorner didn’t seem to grasp this when he joined the LAPD, but he certainly found out.

    This is why I must respectfully disagree with Bill H – fear and intimidation have pretty husky feedback loops for both sides. People are more willing to do something like destroying surveillance equipment if they are only worried about uniformed officers than if they suspect that every passerby is a Zimmerman. The wannabes get more aggressive every time impunity is successfully conferred on a vigilante, and the citizen interested in democracy becomes more reluctant to take action.

    For the low, low price of “sponsoring” state legislators’ junkets, a private prison corporation or security contractor can guarantee expanded business through legitimizing vigilante networks. This also aids their aim of shrinking the public end of government because they can shift those budgets from paying public employees to contracting for technology-based services with their own companies. The bonus gift is that, by transferring our paranoia from authority to each other, they keep us too distracted and scared to even talk to each other. It’s a deal!

  22. Cloud

    from that link:

    Pete is a property owner at La Estancia de Cafayate in Argentina and enjoys a variety of outdoor activities including tennis, skydiving and hiking. His most recent adventure is pursuing his private pilot’s license.

    Sounds like being a member of the Enforcer class worked out well for Pete. I should get in on that! Then I too can retire to my estate and croon about how the Productive Members of society need to take back The Republic.

  23. walter

    also resentment and resistance in target pop increases when cornered/squeezed harder

  24. walter

    btw my email may not b published but it will prob b extracted

  25. Jessica

    The main reason why so many liberals don’t get the really fundamental issues, like ubiquitous surveillance, is because liberals are of the knowledge worker (“creative”) class.
    The position of this class is that it has the potential to be the driving force of the next stage in social evolution, but the currently existing knowledge worker class functions as the servants of the current elite. The sole function still remaining for the current elite is to throttle and prevent the emergence of the knowledge-driven economy-society. The single most important job of the knowledge worker class is to obscure this fact. Particularly from themselves.
    Therefore, it is not an accident or a moral failing, but a perfect expression of their current contradictory position in society that liberals will be very brave on issues that are nowhere near the pivot points of the current system, but absolutely blind on issues that could call the current system itself into question.

  26. Alcuin

    @Jessica: Precisely. Also applies to “lefties”.

  27. Alcuin

    @ Cloud: Corey Robin said much the same thing, no? To howls of protest from the rentier class, I might add.

  28. Very well put Jessica. The willful moral obtuseness of the liberal knowledge class has maddened and baffled me for years. thanks for explaining.

  29. Texas Nate:
    Who is the liberal knowledge class? Do you mean people like Maddow and Chris Hayes? Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias?

  30. J. Random Hacker


    I don’t think the surveillance society created hyper-specialization.

    As for the skill and equipment necessary- the tools are cheap. A netbook, a linux install (free) and a willingness to learn are all one needs. Google and youtube can make anyone a script kiddie in ten minutes.

    And there are more of us out there and interested than you may think. There were a fair amount of hackers in the Occupy movement.

    Surveillance may make some people more compliant temporarily, but an engineered lack of curiosity is a stronger influence.

  31. Celsius 233

    @ J. Random Hacker
    I likewise see a profound lack of curiosity as a major problem.

  32. Andrey Subbotin

    Simple solution to enforcer problem – make all data publicly available. Then public itself can pretty much act as its own enforcer, and any abuses are easy to detect and correct. Sure, this is an initially scary thought, but… if the data existence is a given, and the only other choice is it being restricted to government officials (blackmailable, falsifiable,uncheckable) then public access is safer for everybody.

    Another this public access will force through is restructuring of current morale rules. A lot of data bits that can be used for blackmail, wouldn’t be. Relaxed attitude for infidelity for starters.

  33. David Kowalski

    J Random Hacker:

    A new story came out in the NY Times that the Chinese Army has a unit with thousands of hackers whose target is U.S. Corporations and , secondarily, the U.S. government. Among the data that they have extracted is thousands of pages of “secrets” from the Coca-Cola Corporation. This sounds like the confluence of Big Brother and Dr. Strangelove. Businessweek also carries the same story.

  34. @Jessica and Texas Nate. Phil Ochs sang about liberals.

    I vote for the democratic party
    They want the U.N. to be strong
    I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
    He sure gets me singing those songs
    I’ll send all the money you ask for
    But don’t ask me to come on along
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal…”

  35. The destruction of cameras like this has to be understood as a symbolic and profoundly ineffectual gesture. One main problem is that the bulk of the extant and emerging surveillance apparatus is not accessible for that kind of direct action. Another main problem is economic: once you figure in the risks and consequences of getting caught and the difficulty each such attack, the cost to dissidents is too high relative to the cost imposed by dissidents on the state.

    You can get some insight into the nature of the emerging surveillance state by looking at the interaction between the mechanisms of corporate surveillance (of consumers) and government data collection.

    For example, if your goal is to track an individual from “the moment they leave their home till they return to it” you can get a long way there just by getting that individual to carry a cell phone. You can track his transactions by getting him to use electronic payment methods like debit cards or credit cards. If you want to track where his vehicle travels, one way is to offer him a discount on car insurance if he will agree to install a device that continuously uploads that information to his insurance company. If you want to keep track of his communications, get him and his associates to use easily monitored services like gmail and facebook.

    Of course, there are nominal legal protections in place for all of that corporately collected data but these are (a) weak; (b) technically trivial for a federal-scale intelligence service to bypass.

    To be sure, license plate recognition, facial recognition and so forth add to the capabilities of the system and are most likely to be heavily deployed in perceived “sensitive” areas (e.g. downtown Manhattan, waterfronts, etc.). The “barefoot bandit brigade” has essentially shown how to strike a tiny blow at the margin of the surveillance apparatus, costing the government a little bit but taking on huge risk themselves.

  36. My previous comment was about the ineffectiveness of attacking public surveillance cameras. This one is about how modern modalities of surveillance-based power contrast with historic varieties (like the Stasi of E. Germany).

    As Ian noted, massive, automated collection and retention of often-individualized surveillance data enables “retrospective searches”. An example of how such capabilities are promoted to policy makers: Suppose that law enforcement identifies a new terrorist suspect and an accompanying urgent threat. Passively archived mass surveillance data allows heat of the moment queries like “Where has this person been in the past 6 months? With whom has he communicated?” Of course such a capability has many potential forms of abuse. And of course as awareness of such a capability grows, it might have a chilling effect. Still, there is another risk to consider….

    A cybernetic framework is helpful here because we need the concept of a feedback circuit and of the kinds of components that can form a feedback circuit. We’ll need “sensors”, “actuators”, “control logic”, and “subject”. The “subject” here is a thing to be manipulated, like a person.

    “Sensors” collect data about the state of a subject. Examples include the geospatial information given off by your cell phone or Facebook’s log of your actions on their site.

    An East German-style surveillance state collects a lot of data that it never directly uses. Think of that as “sensors” (informants, taps, bugs) connected to a recording archive (all the files that were exposed after the Wall fell). In modern times, the passive collection and archiving of data like telephony calling logs for retrospective search is an example of sensors connected to archives.

    Sensors are generally passive with respect to the subjects of surveillance.

    “Actuators” are active elements in a subject’s environment. A trivial example is the “on-line ad”. You visit a blog site, say, and there is a news-hole for blog content and there are areas where ads can go. An active, user-specific process generally determines what ads a particular user will see. The mechanism that fills in those ad spaces is a kind of actuator.

    Actuators can be more subtle: algorithmically derived movie recommendations from Netflix; song choices in an automated, personalized music service like Pandora; personalized pricing;

    “Control logic” is the mechanism that determines the action of actuators on the basis of input from corresponding sensors.

    It’s widely noted, and sometimes even with an inkling of appropriate alarm, how “sensors” have become inescapable — ubiquitous — and how the data they produce is increasingly centralized.

    The point I want to convey here is that “actuators” are also becoming inescapable, ubiquitous, and under the same increasingly centralized control.

    Technologically, we’re on the path of immersing ourselves from birth to death inside of a “skinner box”. And I don’t mean skinner box as an abstract description of the natural process of operant conditioning — I mean a skinner box in the sense of a controlled environment where the dominant stimulus an individual experiences are modulated by an experimenters choice of control logic and that control logic has as input effectively absolute surveillance of the experimental subject.

    It’s a mistake to think that totalitarian control can only be sustained through the overt violence of a brutal police force. Another possibility is simply to pacify the public psychologically through subtle, individualized manipulation of each individual’s environment. Do you do “data entry” for a living? Perhaps the machinery can adjust the music in response to your real-time rate of progress in order to maximize output. Are you “driving angry” on your way to that job? Perhaps your personalized music station can tweak that a bit. Listen, I know that it’s a hassle to get to the doctor for your mood disorder but perhaps a new tele-medicine service will passively diagnose you, if you give it access to your web-cams, and send you personally tailored meds each month.

    We get to such a dystopia one convenience at a time. Each new handy-dandy “app” that collects a little more data and adds new “actuators”. Each new generation of home entertainment system that constantly phones home to improve your experience (and comes with cameras and mics installed). Each price-lowering offer that comes if you agree to just a little more surveillance and automated intervention in your life.

    What do the anarchists plan to do about that?

  37. Quiznomicon

    Andrey: “Morale restructuring” seems a rather less likely evolution of that situation than a collapse back to oligarchic surveillance, or an all-consuming tyranny of the mob straight out of a Bradbury novel.

  38. Oaktown Girl

    @Someofparts: Good on your friend for keeping up the fight and doing whatever it took.
    People like that, who are not only able to see the bigger picture, but just as importantly are willing to put their time, effort and bodies on the line are our only hope.

  39. Ian Welsh

    A few small attacks don’t matter what, but when people do it routinely I’ll know they’re serious. And, of course, cameras aren’t the only surveillance method.

    As for cell phones, perfect tracking devices, and smart phones are even better. Still, easy enough to spoof.

    The skinner box point is excellent, Thomas, and I agree, though I’ll point out that this is an extension of skinner boxes (after all, what is, say, school, but a skinner box?)

  40. Celsius 233

    It’s called a Faraday Cage; copper sheet or mesh 100% surrounding an object allows no signal in or out.
    They’re perfect for phones and RDIF embedded objects like passports.

  41. Celsius 233

    And don’t forget the TOR Project;

    A link below regarding Faraday Cages and how they work. They have to be carefully fabricated to be 100% effective.

  42. Celsius 233

    Oops! I mis-understood “Skinner Box”; never mind, the links are still relevant 😉

  43. Software that tracks people on social media created by defence firm
    Exclusive: Raytheon’s Riot program mines social network data like a ‘Google for spies’, drawing ire from civil rights groups

  44. Enjoyed your write-ups, @Thomas Lord. Your exposition on the “skinner box” reminded me of an episode of the excellent British Sci-Fi series Black Mirror (“15 Million Merits”)

  45. Anon

    At the moment I think the ability to read my thoughts, ie. my Drafts folder (imap), is more of a threat than public surveillance. The theoretical point of the panopticon society is to make subjects internalize the apparatus so that we behave as if we are always being watched. In practice, it seems messier than that. I live in the most surveilled place on the world. It is said every day we are watched by over 300 separate cameras. Contrary to internalising the apparatus, we become oblivious to it. People commit crimes in view of CCTV which for one reason or another, fails to be of any use to prosecution. People can’t be identified; recordings are erased. It’s a complete failure on every level. And when it is time to attack a whistleblower or political figure, fabrications and innuendo spread by a pliant news media are enough to try anyone in the court of mass hysteria. I ramble. There is too much to say on the subject. Protect the Internet for it is now essential to democracy. Encrypt everything.

  46. Zachary Smith

    I found this essay to be both interesting and useful, and am adding the concept/term “enforcer class” to my vocabulary.

    That said, one of the conclusions was – to me – quite unrealistic.

    It is best that the surveillance system be challenged and dismantled before it becomes comprehensive

    IMO this is totally impractical, for the obvious reaction would be to set a trap for future vandals with several very well hidden cameras recording events at the one set out as ‘bait’. And as a person here pointed out, the prospect for snitches to enrich themselves can’t be ignored.

    I hadn’t heard of Brin’s book, but an internet search found an excerpt at

    IMO he made some good observations, but his dream of an open society where everybody can access the videos has been shown to be total fantasy. If a cop spots you with a camera, you’ll be lucky if you escape being arrested. Or getting an on-the-spot attitude adjustment with his fists and feet.

    The ‘enforcer class’ has no intention of allowing their behavior to be put on public display. That’s part of the attraction of joining that group in the first place – the unrecorded and generally unpunished lawlessness.

    Bruce Schneier wrote a piece about Brin’s article, and was pretty darned critical.

    Recording the Lawmakers and the Enforcement Class is desirable, but it obviously isn’t going to happen.

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