To Stop Dragnet Surveillance, Make It Cost $10,000 Per Person, Per Day

Activist Smári McCarthy has an idea to hit surveillance in the budget by making it more expensive to do. A lot more expensive.

Jun 10 2014, 1:30pm
Image: Flickr/SHARE Conference

Surveillance is big business. Billions of dollars worth of equipment, software and staff are involved in monitoring, storing and analysing communications. 

Bearing this in mind, Smári McCarthy, a hacker, software developer and founding member of the Icelandic Pirate Party, has come up with a novel idea for tackling ubiquitous government surveillance: financially.

"The goal of those interested in protecting human rights should be to raise the average cost of surveillance to $10,000 per person per day within the next five years,” he said in his recent lecture, 'Engineering Our Way Out of Fascism.'

The thinking goes like this: for the NSA and its Five Eyes partners to operate, McCarthy guesses they need a budget of roughly $120 billion a year. Divide this by the 2.5 billion people that use the internet, and divide that by the 365 days in a year, and you get to the measly sum of $0.13: the price per day of surveillance of one person, or as McCarthy phrases it, 'PPV: Price Per day of Violation' (You can see he has pretty strong feelings on this subject).

Of course, these figures are estimates, and shouldn't be taken as an accurate financial breakdown of the surveillance apparatus. Think of them more as starting figures just so we can grapple with this economic approach. “If we are going to try and take this on and fix this, we need some way of measuring success,” McCarthy told me over the phone.

This is because electronic surveillance presents a difficult problem: How do you quantify it in the first place? It's not like nuclear weapons that, assuming a decent level of transparency, can simply be counted. “Software is different,” McCarthy told me. “Its ephemeral; it doesn't live in the physical environment so there is no way of counting how many surveillance devices there are.”

Judging by the US "black budget", some details of which was published by the Washington Post last year after being obtained from Edward Snowden, the amount of cash thrown at intelligence agencies has been increasing steadily over the last ten years. But although they have a lot of money at their disposal, their finances are finite, and cannot increase indefinitely. So McCarthy's idea is to “raise the cost of each privacy violation substantially,” and on top of litigation, he suggests a few ways of doing this.

The first is greater decentralization. “Ninety to 95 percent of all email go through about ten different companies,” he told me. If there is a wider spread of email and service providers, theoretically the NSA and others would need to invest more money in monitoring the signalssomething they may become reluctant to do. It should be pointed out that this economic approach is aimed at driving up costs for the intelligence agencies, not the companies that provide online service. “It's more about breaking the budgets of the NSA, GCHQ, and those guys,” said McCarthy.

Another way of doing this could be by encouraging more people to use strong encryption. “When the majority of people are communicating over encrypted channels, which are then going through the undersea cables, then that program [i.e. Tempora] is worthless, because of the overheads involved in breaking the encryption. Basically, nobody can afford that,” he explained.

Translating this economic exercise into a tangible form of civil disobedience, however, would present one element that is largely unavoidable: taxation. “We have to accept that if you are living in a country such as the US or UK, you are spending some fraction of your tax money on spying on yourself,” said McCarthy.

But if you could somehow raise the cost of monitoring communications significantly, “any surveillance organisation is going to have to start being picky about how it chooses it targets.” According to McCarthy's estimates, a cost of $10,000 per head would bring the number of people that could be surveilled from essentially everyone on the internet to somewhere near 32,000. “Metadata capture will end, and most things will move over to targeted things: bugs and malware in specific systems,” he said.

McCarthy hopes that if we take these measures—increasing decentralization and use of encryption—we could even hit a $1 PPV next year (which is of course still way off his ultimate goal). It’s a rough idea based on some loose estimations, and let’s face it, it’s probably not going to happen. But it’s still an interesting thought experiment to look at surveillance, and our individual roles in it, in terms of cold, hard cash.