Information asymmetry and the surveillance state

(And now a short break from our normal programming....)

In a comment linked from the Wikileaks Twitter feed on the recent PRISM disclosures, Bernard Keane characterises the surveillance state with the term information asymmetry:

“Information asymmetry is how your government wants to know everything possible about you — where you are, whom you called, what you searched Google for, what was in that gmail you sent, etc etc — while trying to prevent you from knowing about its activities as much as possible by using national security (and other excuses, like “commercial in confidence”) to hide information.”

http://blogs.crikey.com.au/thestump/2013/06/07/a-short-note-on-information-asymmetry/

Whilst the term “information asymmetry” appears highly apt on dictionary definitions, the phenomenon being described is interestingly different from – and wider than – the typical meaning of the term “information asymmetry” in economics. 

In economics “information asymmetry” typically signifies that a seller has better information than a buyer about the quality of the goods being exchanged. 

In the canonical example, the seller of a used car has better information than a potential buyer about the quality of the car (ie whether it is a “lemon”). Similarly an employee – that is a seller of labour – has better information about their productivity than an employer. 

In both these examples – and typically in economics – the information asymmetry is at one level and about one property only, the quality of the goods being exchanged.  This property is exogenous, that is it is not changed by the interaction between the buyer and seller.

State v. subjects: two levels of information asymmetry

In the adversarial context of a surveillance state and a monitored population (call them “subjects”), there are at least two levels of information asymmetry. 

(1)   Knowledge about the state’s thoughts: The first level of asymmetry is knowledge about the state’s thoughts.  This asymmetry is mutual: the state knows more about its own thoughts, and the subjects know more about their own thoughts.

(2)   Knowledge about the state’s knowledge of your thoughts: The second level of asymmetry is knowledge about the state’s knowledge your own thoughts.  In other words, knowledge of the state’s surveillance capabilities.  Again the asymmetry is mutual: the state does not know how much the subjects know about its thoughts, and the subjects do not know how much the state knows about their thoughts.

We can conceive of asymmetry at higher levels: what the state knows you know the state knows about your thoughts, and so on. But at higher levels the significance of asymmetry probably decays (unless the lower levels are exactly symmetric). Two levels are enough to make the following observations.

At both level 1 and level 2 the uncertainty is mutual, that is there is uncertainty in both directions.

At both level 1 and level 2, the uncertainty is endogenous, that is the property to which uncertainty pertains may be changed by the interactions between the parties.

These features – mutuality and endogeneity – make the uncertainty here more subtle than the classical economics set-up, where “asymmetric information” pertains only to the exogenous quality of goods to be exchanged.

Freedom under asymmetric information

The freedom of a society is influenced by the asymmetry of knowledge. To a first approximation, asymmetry in the state’s favour tends towards totalitarianism, and asymmetry in the individual subject’s favour tends towards anarchy (but this is qualified below).

An increase in your level 1 knowledge – your knowledge of the state’s thoughts  – always increases your own freedom.  However the effect of an increase in your level 2 knowledge – your knowledge of the state’s surveillance capabilities – may be less clear, as I explain in a conjecture below.


Conjecture

I conjecture that freedom of subjects as a function of their knowledge of the state’s surveillance (that is level 2 knowledge) follows a U-shaped curve:

  

Explanation:

If the state’s knowledge of your own thoughts is completely secret, it will not inhibit your actions. Under blissful ignorance, freedom is high (the left hand side of the curve).  However this is not a stable scenario: as soon as the state uses the knowledge against you, its actions betray the knowledge and so the power of surveillance is unlikely to remain completely secret.  

On the other hand if you know everything about the limits of your state’s knowledge of your own thoughts – know all the details of its surveillance capabilities – then you adjust your plans and take steps to avoid the surveillance.  This gives at least a modest amount of freedom, albeit perhaps at great cost in terms of surveillance-avoiding work-arounds (the right hand side of the curve). 

It is in the middle of the curve – where you are acutely aware that the state has surveillance capabilities, but have incomplete knowledge of their workings or extent – that your freedom of thought and action will be most inhibited.

Prescription: create ambiguity about your powers of surveillance (or sousveillance)

Applying these thoughts to the surveillance state and its subjects yields the following prescription. To maximise its freedom of thought and action, each party will maximise uncertainty about its powers of surveillance (or for the subjects, sousveillance).

A surveillance state will not fully detail its surveillance capabilities, because to do so would delineate the subjects’ problem and facilitate their search for surveillance-avoiding tactics.  A surveillance state will instead publicise only vague knowledge of surveillance capabilities coupled with a lack of details, thus maximising the subjects’ inhibition and self-censorship, and hence the state’s power.

A subjects’ leaking platform such as Wikileaks will not fully detail its capabilities in obtaining, anonymising and promulgating leaks, because to do so would delineate the surveillance state’s problem and facilitate the search for leak-plugging tactics. The leaking platform will instead publicise only vague knowledge of its capabilities coupled with a lack of details, thus maximising the surveillance state’s apprehension about what might be disclosed.

The value of a leaking platform is not to reveal all secrets of the surveillance state (an impossible and probably undesirable aim), but rather to increase uncertainty about which secrets may be revealed.  Or in the vernacular: if you keep the bastards guessing, you can keep them honest.

Guy Thomas Sunday 09 June 2013 at 4:59 pm | | Default

four comments

Michael

I found this post very interesting, but one aspect of it troubles me.

When you say things like:

“The second level of asymmetry is knowledge about the state’s knowledge of your own thoughts. In other words, knowledge of the state’s surveillance capabilities”

… you’re equating “the state’s knowledge of your own thoughts” with “the state’s surveillance capabilities”. Surely these are two very different things?

If the state has the capability (the power, the potential, the wherewithal) to listen in on my conversations if it so wishes, that’s one thing. If I am in fact being listened to, that’s quite another. Only in this latter case can it be said that the state has knowledge of my thoughts.

It makes a difference. I’d be alarmed if I suspected somebody was listening in on my conversations (and/or reading through my emails, text messages, social media interactions, etc.). Infinitely less alarming – to me, anyway – is the idea of the state having at its disposal a vast mountain of data – mine and everybody else’s – within which it could IN PRINCIPLE single out my data for special examination. That constitutes a powerful surveillance capability, but the likelihood that anybody within the state would use it to gain knowledge of my thoughts in particular seems very small indeed.

Michael, - 17-06-’13 23:23
GUy Thomas

OK, you want to split my second level asymmetry into two levels: (2a) knowledge of the state’s surveillance capabilities (2b) knowledge of how and to whom those capabilities are applied.

I elided 2a and 2b because the notion of the state (2a) having surveillance capabilities but (2b) applying them only in ways I approve of seems vanishingly improbable to me. If the capability exists, power will abuse it, just because it can.

“the likelihood that anybody within the state would use it to gain knowledge of my thoughts in particular seems very small indeed.”

That’s true only until you do something which irritates someone with sufficient access to the surveillance machine. Join a protest, mock a politician, campaign for some change in the law? Better not, because someone will start reading your mail. This isn’t hypothetical: see Martin Luther King.

GUy Thomas, (URL) - 18-06-’13 13:54
Michael

I do think it makes sense to split it into those two levels, yes. And to my mind, (2b) is much the more interesting. My attitude towards (2a) is: you might as well just operate under the assumption that the state has the ability to eavesdrop on any and all of your electronic communications. Emails, phone calls, Facebook posts and messages, web site visits, you name it.

In this sense, there’s not much to be gained by worrying about the exact extent of the state’s surveillance capabilities. Just assume that their ability to inspect electronic communications is unlimited – because really, where would the limits come from? Wiretapping has been around since the dawn of telephony, and there’s nothing about email and other modern-day forms of digital communication that make them much less vulnerable to being eavesdropped upon.

(2b), the question of how and to whom those capabilities are applied: that seems to me to be the crucial question. Who gets targeted, and for what reasons? How does this targeting relate to the legitimate uses of the capability under the law? (And does the law need tightening up?) What practical mechanisms are in place to prevent the capability from being abused? What sorts of time-sapping red tape / legal processes / administrative hurdles with respect to the data provider does the state have to go through before it can access the communications it’s interested in? What level of manpower to they have available to them to do the listening? Is mine the sort of state that will inflict punishments / deprivations on me if it eavesdrops on my communications and doesn’t like what it hears/reads?

That the capability will be abused sometimes is a given, but in what ways, and on what scale? And under what circumstances can I personally expect to be targeted? This is the sort of thing that will govern my freedom-of-thought-and-action curve.

I’m not sure I accept that if I mock a politician I’m definitely going to be targeted for eavesdropping. Nor can I entirely exclude the possibility, of course.

So, make of all that what you will. I don’t consider myself to be in a state of incomplete knowledge with respect to the state’s surveillance capabilities – I believe those capabilities to be sweeping. I do consider myself to be in a state of incomplete knowledge with respect to the ways the state uses its capability; and yet I’m not paranoid, because I suspect that despite the potential for abuse, the impact on me is likely to be small (even if I engage in open criticism of the government). Perhaps I’m naive. Even if I am naive, though, you would still need to take account of people like me in your analysis!

Michael, - 18-06-’13 18:34
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