Are you still in the mood for big government surveillance? Over the past few weeks while on sojourn in Washington I have met with a number of US defence and security experts, contractors and computer science academics.
Aside from them footing the bill from a pay-check that remains in rude health, one thing was constant - they are all either working on or keenly aware of the next big thing in surveillance: social network mood tracking.
Mood tracking is essentially a new form of highly advanced constant polling, which will allow intelligence agencies, and corporations willing to pay, to track the mood of an individual, region or nation by millisecond psychological computer analysis of their social network interactions, photos and lexicon.
Two such programmes funded by the US government in partnership with IBM are up and running in a Virginia workshop and an Ivy League University, and are able to accurately plot moods in real time via twitter, google and facebook. It is predicted that US intelligence agencies will have full access to the programme within 6 months, and will be able to track micro and macro mood trends across the US in real-time as they react to news events, advertising and government policies. The only thing that isn't clear about the project, to anyone I have spoken to, is why this is a necessary or acceptable tool of government. There is no doubt to the utility of such a programme, and if the programme works the applications are almost endless for governments and corporations alike, but on the back-foot of Snowden, the UK Guardian arrests and the recent cancellation of the Brazilian President Rousseff’s trip to the US over concerns about aggressive American spying, it is curious that the US government is pushing headlong into further citizen surveillance for which there is little mandate.
Mood tracking is also uncomfortably close, if not inseparable from thought tracking, and headlines marking Obama as an information-age Stalinist turning the US into an Orwellian nightmare seem inevitable. Snowden may mark the cusp in a debate on the left and right alike, which has until now been contextualised in the post-9/11 broadly pro-government surveillance US. Increased and unnecessary government intrusion into the lives of citizens, and lazy maintenance of sensitive data, is rapidly changing the public mind to begin to question the surveillance culture, and to herald Snowden as hero, not villain.
The UK citizen is one of the most surveilled on the planet, with more CCTV cameras per capita in London than in any other city, but outrage at government surveillance tends to be most marked when, as the recent Snowden case highlighted, surveillance moves beyond the public and into the private sphere. Mood tracking, or the surveillance of any social interaction falls into this category, and further intelligence scandals and programmes of personal intrusion can only serve to tip the balance in the favour of whistleblowers, and against a government which operates an increasingly comprehensive and arrogant hold over its surveilled citizenry.
This environment places both liberty and security at risk, as the line is forever blurred between genuine necessity and abuse of power, entirely concordant with Franlkin’s prophetic analysis that any society trading liberty for security will deserve neither and lose both.
The internet age has thus far been one of citizen emancipation, pushing against the ability of governments to control their populations, programmes like mood tracking suggest that governments are now using the same channels to aggressively push back.
Ben Harris-Quinney is the Chairman of the Bow Group, the United Kingdom’s oldest conservative think-tank.
The article was originally published in Trending Central in 2012