Business

Have we passed peak surveillance?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

This is a guest post by Brad Feld, a managing director at Foundry Group.

Doc Searls wrote a great, very detailed post this weekend titled Thoughts on privacy where he argues we have passed the point of “Peak Surveillance.” He says, about halfway through the post:

“I can’t prove it, but I do believe we have passed Peak Surveillance. When Edward Snowden’s shit hit the fan in May, lots of people said the controversy would blow over. It hasn’t, and it won’t. Our frogs are not fully boiled, and we’re jumping out of the pot. New personal powers will be decentralized. And in cases where those powers are centralized, it will be in ways that are better aligned with individual and social power than the feudal systems of today. End-to-end principles are still there, and still apply. ”

Five minutes later, I read an article in the New York Times titled Drug agents use vast phone trove, eclipsing N.S.A.’s which basically explains how the DEA has been paying AT&T for access to all its phone records for at least the last six years and to embed AT&T employees alongside DEA agents and local law enforcement to supply them with phone data going back to 1987. This program is called Hemisphere and, like Fight Club, is not allowed to be talked about. The text from p12 of the official presentation follows:

“All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document. If there is no alternative to referencing a Hemisphere request, then the results should be referenced as information obtained from an AT&T subpoena.”

Searls refers to a quote from Bruce Schneier about our new feudal overlords, which I think is just brilliant.

“Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether — for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them – or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.”

And then, I saw the hilariously sad and funny video “I Forgot My Phone.”

I have no idea if we’ve passed Peak Surveillance. But I know we are talking about a lot these days. I’m lucky that I’m married to Amy who has spent an enormous amount of time thinking about privacy (her college thesis was on the right to privacy). Our conversations about this are rich, and it’s caused me to start thinking 20 years in the future about the dynamics. This has happened before and it will happen again. So say we all.

Brad Feld is a managing director at Foundry Group; this post originally appeared on his blog. Feld lives in Boulder, Colo. and invests in software and Internet companies around the United States. In his spare time, he runs marathons and reads a lot.


VentureBeat is studying the state of marketing technology. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.