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An exciting new Periodic Table reveals the elements of surveillance

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By Simon Davies

Getting to grips with how the world ended up under a blanket of extensive surveillance can be a challenge, even for the experts. Surveillance is now so deeply embedded in our societies and legal systems that understanding its causes is a full-time task.

With this in mind Privacy Surgeon is pleased to offer a more digestible explanation in the form of our simplified Periodic Table of surveillance elements. Here you’ll find all the core ingredients that have contributed to the surveillance soup over the past thirty years.

Global treaties create the foundation bond, industry/ government cooperation provides the knowledge pathways, metadata is the raw elemental material, while interoperability (system compatibility) permits the free flow of material across sectors and organisations.

You remember the periodic tables surely – Helium, Hydrogen and so on. Our version is reproduced below this introduction, and you can click the link on the right for a larger version.

There are hundreds of surveillance technologies and techniques, but we’re only focusing on the foundation parts that constitute them.

If you judged the current privacy meltdown on the basis of media reporting of the past few months you’d be excused for imagining that our panoptic situation is a compound of five elements: backdoor access (Ba), systemic infiltration (I), Metadata (Mt), global treaties (Ga) and industry/government partnership (Ir).

However this is an unstable compound that can react to sudden changes in the legal or political environment. The balance of the ingredients is too volatile. To stabilise this equation, three further elements are required: legal exemptions (Es), Interoperability (In) and Security Theatre (Se). Security theatre is the illusion of threat or its resolution.

Now we have a seven-element compound that has the ability to neutralise most external influences. Global treaties create the foundation bond, industry/government cooperation provides the knowledge pathways, metadata is the raw elemental material, while interoperability (system compatibility) permits the free flow of material across sectors and organisations.

Now, when you add two bonding elements – legal exemptions and security theatre – the result is a robust solution. Security theatre is the primary catalyst that combusts to create a false sense of urgency which in turn accelerates the formation of legal exemptions. In this reaction there is much vapour and heat. However the combination of exemptions and global treaties insulates this chemical activity. This results in the seventh element – systemic infiltration – becoming active, and indeed dominant.gcylinder

So now we have the raw surveillance compound. However its potency is limited. More elements are needed to ensure that there is a firm basis to ensure universality. The compound requires vast amounts of energy in the form of data and so Mandatory Reporting (Md) involving everything from financial transactions to health records provides a rich reserve of fuel. Data Retention (Db) and Geo-location provide a potent double-bond that satisfies the needs of other elements.

Data flow is accelerated by institutional bonds such as LEA (La – Law Enforcement Agency) cooperation and Mutual Assistance (Mn) administrative assistance obligations. Meanwhile the Revolving Door (Re) between industry and government ensures that the compound’s internal mixture is kept uniform and stable. Systems Integration (Si) becomes an efficient catalyst that with the right injection of security theatre enables a permanent state of growth for the Technology Canopy (Te).

There’s much more, but you get the picture. And you thought privacy was hard to grasp!

 

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