A recent guest essay in the New York Times (12/28/22) concluded a searing takedown of “our technology overlords” with the sentence:
We have a technologically driven shift of power to ideological individuals and organizations whose lack of appreciation for moral nuance and good governance puts us all at risk.
You might think, Wow, I didn’t think the Times had it in it to take on Google, Meta and Amazon so directly. Well… you’d be right.
Because the technology overlords in this op ed—as absurd as it sounds—are the software engineers supporting the open-source messaging app Signal, and not the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
The piece, “The Signal App and the Danger of Privacy at All Costs,” by Reid Blackman, makes the case for corporate and government surveillance, by demonizing freedom from such surveillance as a dangerous plot by unnamed “technologists” who are “developing and deploying applications of their technologies for explicitly ideological reasons.” Their ideological agenda? Privacy. The horror!
This screed is so full of obvious exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims that it reads like a caricature. That the New York Times published it, even given its ruling-class biases, is surprising as well as disgraceful.
“We believe championing user privacy means keeping your data out of anyone’s hands, including our own, rather than ‘responsibly’ managing your data,” Signal’s website says. For Blackman, this commitment to what Signal terms “privacy first” is civil libertarian extremism. He trots out predictable bogeymen demonstrating the dangers of unchecked privacy: terrorists and child predators shielded from law enforcement. “Criminals have also used this government-evading technology,” Blackman says darkly. This fear-mongering rests on an old authoritarian argument: that law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to lose, from government intrusion.
What of the young woman who needs an abortion and needs to make sure her messages are not tracked? What of the undocumented USian who needs to ask a question about their rights without risking being disappeared by ICE? What of the BLM activist planning a protest who wants to avoid police sweeping up and teargassing demonstrators? What of the transgender teenager looking for support who needs to hide their identity from their parents?
They may all be “criminals” to Blackman since all of them are targeted by various state and federal laws, but to those of us who recognize that there is a wide gap between law and justice, they all have a legitimate moral right to privacy.
Moreover, they have a democratic right to privacy.
‘Safe from bad actors’
Blackman is incensed that Signal refrains from collecting metadata on its users. “The company doesn’t know the identity of users, which users are talking to one another or who is in a group message.” This is the real difference between Signal and other popular messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, which also either default to end-to-end encryption or have that option. Why does this matter?
Imagine you are holding a meeting at your house. The conversations in your living room are private—no one can hear them. But the car parked outside can see exactly who goes into your house, when, and when they leave again; how often these gatherings happen; and whenever two people from your group talk to each other. That’s metadata. And once you understand this parallel between the offline and online worlds, you can immediately see why the right to keep that metadata private and away from whoever is parked in that car—whether it’s the NSA, the NYPD, ICE or Google—is essential to democracy.
Metadata is surveillance, just as much as wiretapping or surveillance cameras are. “The Signal App and the Danger of Privacy at All Costs” would have you believe that being opposed to the tracking of metadata is an overreaction:
This response reflects a lack of faith in good governance, which is essential to any well-functioning organization or community seeking to keep its members and society at large safe from bad actors.
This is a highly revealing sentence. According to Blackman, the threat to a well-ordered society where people are safe from “bad actors” comes from a lack of faith in the good intentions of government. But for those outside ruling elite circles, the bad actors too often are government actors.
Unethical and illegal government surveillance happens all the time—from the massive NSA surveillance programs that Edward Snowden exposed in 2013, to the surveillance of Muslims by the NYPD, to the routine surveillance of people planning peaceful protests by the Department of Homeland Security’s fusion centers.
Moreover, much of this illegal surveillance is done with the cooperation of the corporate sector (such as the NSA programs), and companies like Amazon make and host surveillance technology like Ring and Palantir. The former is a home security surveillance service that partners with police and has a long, documented history of racist abuse. The latter is a data-mining company that runs on Amazon Web Services and is used by ICE to hunt down and deport immigrants.
(Corporate digital surveillance is also a prime source of profits, as Shoshana Zuboff demonstrates in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The threats to privacy that come from this dimension of surveillance are also dismissed by Blackman.)
‘Scaling up its ideology’
In scolding Signal and “technologists” for being unwilling to simply trust the government with our data, Blackman is staking out an aggressive position in favor of existing relations of power, complete with their systemic biases and abuses.
He goes further. “There’s something sneaky in all this,” he says, accusing Signal of surreptitiously making its users carry out its “rather extreme” ideology of privacy. “Scaling up its technology is scaling up its ideology,” Blackman declares. Users are “witting or unwitting advocates of the moral views of the 40 or so people who operate Signal.”
But why are Signal’s politics more sinister or “ideological” than Meta’s? And does Blackman really believe that Signal users are unknowingly furthering an agenda more than Google or Amazon users?
Speaking of agendas, Reid Blackman is a corporate and government consultant whose specialty is artificial intelligence, specifically AI ethics. AI, of course, depends on metadata. So his paychecks come from those who have a vested interest in demonizing privacy and normalizing digital surveillance.
If there’s a case to be made that routine surveillance of the sort enabled by harvesting metadata is compatible with a democratic society, this op-ed is not it. It is, rather, an emotionally manipulative, intentionally alarmist and—it needs to be said—ideological attack on the idea that people have a right to online privacy.
Making Signal the poster child for this supposedly “morally dangerous” proposition is no accident: Signal is routinely used by democratic activists and organizers to exercise their constitutional First Amendment rights. Blackman is right about one thing—the values and interests of those users are at odds with digital surveillance. But as an ethicist, he’s chosen the wrong side in that battle.