Is the bulk interception of data actually worse than mass surveillance?
Where does bulk interception of data stop and mass surveillance start and in the world of Big Data and algorithmic surveillance is it even relevant to make such a distinction?
It emerged last week that these are important questions, following a ruling by the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal and subsequent response by the UK government and its electronic spying outfit, GCHQ (see the details in this Guardian report). This response proposes that mass surveillance doesn’t really happen (even if it may look a bit like it does), because all that is really going on is bulk interception of data and this is OK (and thus can be allowed to happen).
One of the most disturbing revelations flowing from Edward Snowden’s exposure of the Prism and Upstream digital surveillance operations is the extent to which the US and UK governments have been capturing and storing vast amounts of information, not just on possible terrorists or criminals, but on everyone. This happened in secret and its exposure has eventually prompted a response from government and this response has been to assert that this collection and storage doesn’t constitute mass surveillance, instead it is “the bulk interception of data which is necessary to carry out targeted searches of data in pursuit of terrorist or criminal activity.”
This is the needle in the haystack argument – i.e. we need to process a certain amount of everyone’s hay in order to find the terrorist needles that are hidden within it. This seems like a reasonable justification because it implies that the hay (i.e. the information about all of us) is a disposable asset, something to be got rid of in order to expose the needles. This is basically the way that surveillance has always operated. To introduce another analogy, it is a trawling operation that is not interested in the water that passes through the net only the fish that it contains.
However, this justification falls down because this is not the way that algorithmic surveillance works. Algorithmic surveillance works by Continue reading