A provocative argument from Stuart Armstrong on the benefits of the surveillance state. Ubiquitous surveillance will reduce crime and reduce the need for police, improve the incentives to enter into arms control agreements (because they are more verifiable), and then there are the global health and environmental benefits:

With proper procedures and perfect surveillance, we could avoid pandemics altogether. Infections would be quickly isolated and eliminated, and eradication campaigns would be shockingly efficient. Tracking the movements and actions of those who fell ill would make it much easier to research the causes and pathology of diseases. You can imagine how many lives would have been saved had AIDS been sniffed out by epidemiologists more swiftly.

Likewise, mass surveillance could prevent the terrorist use of nukes, dirty bombs, or other futuristic weapons. Instead of blanket bans in dangerous research areas, we could allow research to proceed and use surveillance to catch bad actors and bad practices. We might even see an increase in academic freedom.

It's worthwhile checking the comments thread on this one, as there is some interesting push-back. Note that Dilbert creator Scott Adams made a related argument on his blog some months ago:

In general, whenever privacy is lost in a democracy, it creates an opportunity for freedom to increase. The mechanism looks like this:

  1. A loss of privacy reveals how many people are involved in a particular activity and gives the public a chance to get used to it. (gays, weed, porn, etc.).
  2. Law enforcement has no practical way to handle all of the "criminals" who are now exposed. And even trying would look like a bad use of resources.
  3. Laws evolve to reflect what is practical. Formerly illegal activities become legal or tolerated because there is no practical alternative.

In the long run, privacy is toast. But what you will get in return is more personal freedom and less crime. That's a trade that almost no one would voluntarily make, but I think the net will be good.

Photo by Flickr user jeff o_o.