The recent kerfuffle over the Canadian government’s decision to wire for sound the Ottawa Airport, and begin recording travellers’ private conversations, has touched a nerve — the same nerve which was tweaked earlier this year by the government’s proposal to commence en masse surveillance of people’s Internet browsers, email, and cell phones. Canadians, it seems, are uncomfortable with the idea of the government engaging in massive surveillance, police state-style.
And I agree with them on this. But we also need to get serious about something else. On one point I agree with the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world: traditional ideas about privacy are obsolete. Knee-jerk reactionary attempts to preserve them are unlikely to succeed beyond the short term. We need to begin thinking very seriously about what privacy will mean in the 21st century. The longer we put off having this conversation, the less options we will have to do anything about it.
The problem, in essence, is that very shortly now we will become victims of our own technological progress: the surveillance state will become so easy and inexpensive to set up that resisting it will be fruitless. We have a limited and closing window in which we can set the rules in such a way that future surveillance programs are as palatable and acceptable as possible. We’re not there yet, but we are encountering plenty of warning signs. I want to use a couple of examples of those warning signs to show what I mean.
First, let’s begin with the Cold War-era Stasi of East Germany — widely regarded as one of the most effective secret policing organizations in modern history. The Stasi maintained files on an astonishing 6 million of the country’s subjects. It was a mammoth task. Even after allowing for pilfering by the Russians, the Americans, and anyone else who could get their hands on its precious paperwork, the Stasi’s archives still contain 110 kilometres of paper files and 1.4 million photographs. 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the archives still employ hundreds of personnel, at a cost of tens of millions of euros per year, simply to sift through all the old materials and preserve them for posterity.
Here’s the thing, though. 1.4 million photos, as JPEG files, would take up a few terabytes of hard disk space. A couple billion pages of text would take up another a few terabytes. Right now, you can buy hard disk storage at the rate of around $100 per terabyte — assuming you don’t get your hard disk on sale, in which case it might be half as much. Your PC wouldn’t be able to hold the entire Stasi archives, but I suspect most of my readers have enough disposable income that they could purchase the computer apparatus necessary to do so without going hungry or losing their house.
There are disturbing implications to this. Essentially, if the Canadian government wanted to build a database consisting of about 10 megabyets per citizen on average (meaning a couple pictures, a couple audio clips, and a few hundred pages worth of emails, Facebook posts, tweets, vital statistics, etc.), this task would require total hard disk storage space of around 300 terabytes. The cost of setting up this storage would be about $30,000.
Sound impressive? Not exactly. Facebook’s database is a couple of dozen petabytes — something over 20,000 terabytes. And IBM has secured an unidentified customer to buy a 120 petabyte hard drive — meaning, about 400 times the size of my hypothetical “Stasi Canada” database. At $100 per terabyte, that’s still only $12 million. The pricetag for the IBM system is presumably far larger, but then again, theirs will also come with a search system capable of sifting through all the data once collected.
This illustrates how far the surveillance state has already moved. There are only two likely possibilities with respect to IBM’s 120 petabyte drive. Either it is being ordered by the National Security Agency, suggesting that the American intelligence community a database proportionately equivalent to 40 times the size of my “Stasi Canada” example, or the NSA already has larger and more capable databases available for their use, which the public doesn’t know about. Right now the NSA is building a special computer data storage facility in Utah which encompasses 1 million square feet of floor space. I’m not exactly sure how many hard drives you can fit in a million-square-foot building, but I’ll bet it’s a lot.Tweet