Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

The Unstoppable Exponential Growth In The State Of Surveillance

Posted by Tom Foremski - June 26, 2013

We will have Big Brother because we can: Surveillance systems both government run and commercial are powerful and cheap, and are getting cheaper and more powerful at an exponential rate. 

This relentless doubling of computer chip capabilities every 18 to 24 months described as Moore's Law, has created a warp-speed acceleration in the capabilities of all our digital technologies. It's made possible cheap iPhones, tablets, servers, and a host of desirable digital electronics. Gizmos and gadgets get ever better and ever cheaper because they can.

Our entire modern society, its incredible advances, its innovation, is directly driven by the engine of Moore's Law. Every digital thing gets better and less expensive, automatically.

We get cheaper smartphones, and governments get cheaper surveillance systems. Both are improving at the same exponential rate.

But what about storage? More powerful computing means more data processed, and lots more data is generated, which means more storage is needed.

The good news is that data storage technologies are improving even faster than Moore's law. Doubling about every year or so, and falling in price. 

Relentless progress…

The beauty of the Moore's Law conveyer belt is that the double-power chips it delivers make all the apps more powerful automatically. Software gets a free ride, there's no need to invent new programming languages, there's even no reason to write tight code because the lazy code gets better, faster, too.

Businesses have been snooping on consumers for decades and benefiting greatly from Moore's Law. Multitudes of companies collect and sell personal data because knowing the timing of a consumer's intent to buy is an el dorado for merchants, it means they can save on their costs of sales, they can sell more at a lower price.

Business snooping versus government snoops

We often forget that government systems are riding the same exponential graph as business systems, they benefit from the same doubling in performance and lower costs. 

Google reads peoples' Gmail  but when government agencies read peoples' email, there's an outcry. Same data, same activity, one is acceptable while the other is not, why?

Snooping by Big Business has a mundane objective: to sell you more stuff. Big Brother snooping is about judging you. And there's the rub. 

With Moore's Law Big Brother is getting better and better at judging you, your character, your ideas, your connections, your trustworthiness (esp. with Manning and Snowden). Everything about what makes you human can be measured, quantified, and judged.

Jam tomorrow…

There's another difference: Big Business isn't much interested in what you did, said, or wrote, a year ago, two years, ten years ago, it throws away much of that data. Big Brother keeps it all. What it can't use today, because the files are strongly encrypted, or distributed across many databases, it knows it can use tomorrow.

Tomorrow's computer systems will be able to decrypt those files, tomorrow's computer systems will be able to analyze and cross-link data in a myriad of databases, they'll be able to know more about you in ways that are impractical today.

Historical data grows in usefulness to Big Brother because it makes possible a more accurate digital simulacrum of you. With every doubling in computer performance, the simulation of you grows closer and closer to the real you. The computer models get better at predicting what you will or won't do. Big Brother gets better at predicting intent.

The horror of George Orwell's 1984 was the government's ability to uncover and punish "thoughtcrimes." Tomorrow's Big Brother will have the means to predict thoughtcrimes before they become actual crimes. They are designed to discover intent. 

To be judged on the privacy of your thoughts is bad enough, to be judged on your future thoughts and the crimes that they will likely lead to, is far worse. 

And that's the difference between Google and the NSA: Big Business is purely interested in your wallet. Big Brother is interested in the purity of your soul.

Welcome to this unstoppable future brought to you courtesy of Moore's Law.

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