Imagine you and someone close to you are seated in your home, having an intimate, personal conversation. Perhaps you are confessing something you are ashamed of having done, discussing misgivings about a relationship, or asking for advice on a sensitive matter. You happen to glance out of the window, and notice a person standing there, clearly eavesdropping.

A natural reaction is one of shock, fear, anger, confusion, above all a feeling of having been violated. The eavesdropper shatters the bubble of trust that surrounded you and your conversational partner. Why was this person listening? What will they do with what they overheard, to whom will they repeat it? To what end?

It is unthinkable to carry on the conversation in such a situation. The act of surveillance has a chilling effect. It modifies what we are willing to say, do, and think.

Most of us will never experience anything like the above, yet the reality we live is arguably far more dramatic.

Surveillance chills the mind

The main difference between the example and reality is, of course, that most of us don’t have shadowy people following us around listening to everything we say and writing down everything we do. Instead, any number of large corporations run automated systems that seek to track our behavior in ways that go far beyond merely eavesdropping on our conversations.

This phenomenon has many names: “Surveillance capitalism” is one of the more well known, the “Surveillance Panopticon” is another. I’ll refer to it as just “The Total Surveillance Network”.

The Total Surveillance Network tracks and analyzes the behaviors of billions of humans. It is a machine that seeks to extract signals from noise, to turn trillions of data points into models of reality that can be used to analyze, predict, and shape behavior.

It is not run by any one organization, but is composed of myriad entities, each operating with their own motivations, goals, and intentions. Social media platforms, governments, and “big tech” are probably the most most obvious and egregious perpetrators, but most businesses, websites, and even individuals contribute, whether they are aware of their participation or not.

It senses the world through physical electronic devices. Cameras, touchscreens, keyboards, microphones, convert human actions into discrete digital signals, which can be interpreted by the network.

The quantity and variety of these signals are too great to list. Any interaction a human has with almost any technology whatsoever has the potential to be recorded, analyzed, and to have an inference drawn from it. The data ingested by the network spans from the most mundane to the most extraordinary, from the most granular to the most all-encompassing. Individual taps on a touchscreen, the words of a message you send, the type of milk you buy, or the contents of a photo you took, are all digestible by the network.

Metadata makes up the bulk of its diet: what you write constitutes the “data”, and may be of interest, but is usually less revealing than the metadata - to whom, at what time, where from, at what speed you write.

There is almost no data that is not valuable in some way to the network. Viewed as a whole, humanity’s collectively generated digital communications are a vast, inscrutable sea of useless, meaningless noise. Yet computers, with their vast memories and processing capabilities, are adept at perceiving the currents in the noise which represent lives, interactions, relationships, behaviors, stories, histories, futures.

The Total Surveillance Network is the most invasive surveillance apparatus that has ever existed. It places billions of individual humans under more intense scrutiny than under any previous regime. Like an eavesdropper who exerts a chilling effect on a conversation, the total surveillance network muffles thought and communication on a global scale.

To be so thoroughly known by another is to surrender control to it. Intimate knowledge of a person gives the power to predict what that person is likely to do, how they are likely to react, and by extension allows them to be manipulated.

Until ten years ago, the idea that individuals would be so thoroughly known was inconceivable. Omniscience previously belonged only to gods.

The apparatus has been built. It does not matter who holds the keys to the machine, nor to what ends they exploit it. Edward Snowden calls it “turnkey tyranny”, a system with the potential to turn mind-bogglingly oppressive in the blink of an eye, with nothing but policy standing in the way.

The mass collection of data, by any entity, trends only in one direction: towards dystopia.

That is why I do not use Facebook.

The solution

Though it probably seems obvious at this point, I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to suggest a solution.

As with any large-scale societal issue, it is easy to become discouraged and to feel that ones actions have limited effect. Many touchstone issues like poverty, war, or global warming appear as icebergs marching inexorably across civilization. Addressing any of them would require massive shifts in government, industry, ways of life, or human psychology.

Surveillance, by contrast, is pitifully easy to dismantle. For nearly every platform that enables the Total Surveillance Network, there exists an alternative that fulfills the same function, but without the surveillance. Amazingly, we can have our cake and eat it too.

The actual act that disables the Total Surveillance Network is so small as to seem almost ridiculous: just download a different app.

The moment you move your conversations with your significant other, closest friends, or family out of Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp and into a privacy-respecting messenger, you are cutting off in an instant a torrent of data that has probably flowed nonstop for years. The significance of this act can be hard to appreciate, as the faces presented by messaging apps are all incredibly similar. Yet the underlying technology could not be more different.


Encryption is the key to digital freedom.

Apps like Signal, Session, Briar, and others, do not ask you to blindly trust them with your data. Instead, they are built using cryptography to provide a mathematical guarantee that your data cannot be collected, even if the platform carrying your message wanted to do so.

This feat of engineering is enabled by a constellation of technologies, developed by nonprofits, volunteers, entrepreneurs, governments, and many others, driven by a common understanding that privacy is necessary for humanity to thrive.

Thanks to them, private encrypted communication is easier to access than ever before. It really is as easy as just downloading an app.