We are becoming police states. Everyone OK with that?

We are becoming technologically-enabled police states. That’s a reasonable analysis of a situation where the average citizen is investigated as a matter of course, their lives recorded on the basis that they, or someone they know, or someone that person knows, is a “person of interest.”

We are treating this as an unstoppable development, with a variety of justifications. The intelligence services are building this future because they can, technologically and politically speaking. Politicians mostly don’t understand the technology and above all fear being accused of being soft on terrorism, or pedophilia, or whatever the panic of the day may be. They also know that information is power.

Technologists recognize the power and pervasiveness of this constant surveillance better than most, but are mostly reluctant to countenance the idea of moderating or regulating progress. And the average citizen either doesn’t realize what western societies are becoming, or feels powerless to shape that trajectory.

Data collection can be surveillance

The one thing that politicians get right about technology is that it’s part of the real world: rules and norms are just as applicable online as off, even though enforcing them in each realm can require different tactics and sometimes create different results. So let’s look at what’s happening online today, and compare it with its closest offline analogy.

On Wednesday, The Guardian and the UK’s Channel 4 News revealed what most suspected by this point: the monitoring of vast swathes of the British populace. In 2007, then-prime minister Tony Blair allowed a change in the intelligence agreement between the U.K. and the U.S., permitting the Americans to record British citizens’ phone and fax numbers, emails and IP addresses, so as to map who communicates with whom. It is extremely unlikely that this data is not shared with the British authorities.

In pre-internet terms, this is the equivalent of a low-level cop following someone and compiling a report of where they went, who they spoke to and when. Only it’s on a much larger scale: as always, the idea is to scoop up information about not only “persons of interest” but people three hops away from them (“hops” being degrees of separation). That can quite plausibly mean the surveillance of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, due to their indirect links with just one person of interest.

stalking dudeThose who try to defend mass surveillance say this is irrelevant. They argue that the important thing is not what data is collected, but what is done with that data. In effect, they are saying that surveillance only begins when more senior detectives look at those junior officers’ reports and spot something that prompts a closer look. That argument is absurd.

We already know that some NSA analysts have used their facilities to track crushes and former lovers — the NSA has only admitted to a handful of such incidents, but these are only the cases where the analysts turned themselves in. We don’t know the real scale of abuses of this and other kinds, just as we don’t know who other than Edward Snowden (who again reported his own action, only to the world rather than just his superiors) made off with classified NSA and GCHQ material. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, can use this data to monitor pretty much anyone. And that’s before the “actual surveillance” kicks in.

What’s more, because we seem to have no effective oversight of the intelligence community, we don’t know how often they are using this basic surveillance information as a trigger to dig deeper. We must take it on trust that they don’t regularly commit a digital equivalent of “search and seizure”, the kind of invasive prying that law enforcement should only ever do with a warrant specific to that case (a warrant is theoretically required to see the contents of an email, for example). And what’s being used today to fight terrorism will be used tomorrow for more mundane policing activities, as is being threatened in Sweden — when that happens, the numbers of “persons of interest” explode, and everyone becomes a target.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a fundamental principle of our societies that we now risk losing. That, and the cherished idea that someone can live their life free from unwarranted interference.

Walking further into the trap

Whatever your opinion of Edward Snowden, there is no doubt that he has triggered a debate that we were not previously having in any meaningful way. Yes, there have been prophets howling into the wind, but a lack of wider technological understanding – coupled with a belief that democratically elected governments would only allow such changes after consultation with the public – meant they were not taken seriously by most people.

TonyBlairAs it turns out, there was no real consultation, and the changes were made anyway. The situation is particularly egregious in the U.K. — Blair’s government and its successors repeatedly tried to change the law to allow the retention of everyone’s digital communications records, and were rebuffed each time because the public (and human rights experts) recognized how wrong it would be to do so. They did it anyway, even as those debates were taking place.

We now have what is probably a once-in-a-generation chance to evaluate and reconsider the changes we are making to our societies. It gets much more complicated from here: we are entering a world of ubiquitous connectivity, where everything from our cars to our buildings and toothbrushes will be pumping out data.

Much of that data will relate to individuals. Already, our smartphones include more sensors each year, emanating information that identifies not only where we walk but how we walk and when we take a pause. With the rise of wearable health-tech devices, you can add vital signs to that list. Today, those conducting smart analysis of our digital footprints on services such as Facebook(s fb) can sometimes know more about us than we do. Imagine what’s down the line.

Fitbit ForceOn top of that, we are increasingly expected to live essential parts of our lives online, where it is easiest to monitor us. Interacting with the government or local authorities is already largely a matter of visiting a website. Online is our new town hall, our new public space, our new voting booth. There will likely be no other way to conduct basic civic functions. And every one of our actions and interactions can be tracked or hacked into.

It does not have to be like this

Perhaps the greatest danger today is that of fatalist apathy. People do not think there is a viable alternative. They are wrong.

On the technological side, techniques such as anonymization and pseudonymization allow the development of personalized services that don’t invade privacy on a mass scale – yes, targeted investigations can extricate identifying information out of such masked data, but we want targeted investigations to remain possible. Indiscriminate dragnet surveillance is the problem here.

Technologists and developers need to implement privacy by design. They need to minimize the data they collect, because their advances are the very tools that can be turned against people. They need to mask that data where they can, and make it 100 percent clear to their users what data is being collected, why it’s being collected, and what’s going to happen to it. Also, we need encryption everywhere.

Secret meetingOf course there is no point in us telling the intelligence community to minimize data collection and respect encryption; to do so would be antithetical to their nature. We need to tell politicians to order them to do it.

And that’s the big challenge: we need leaders who understand what is going on, and who will intelligently address those bland assurances that mass surveillance is the best, only and inevitable option. We desperately need politicians and regulators who recognize the need for urgency in protecting our way of life and helping it develop in a positive, rather than menacing, way. Change is happening now, and it’s happening extremely quickly.

Essentially, we need leaders who are brave enough to say they would rather accept a slightly higher risk of terrorist attack or criminal activity than take away people’s everyday freedom. That may sound like a radical notion now, but it’s only a restatement of that well-worn quote from the American “founding father” and scientist Benjamin Franklin. It may border on cliché by now, but it’s no less wise and crucial today than three centuries ago:

“They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

This is a deciding moment for our western societies and, unusually for the politics of our times, it’s not a question of left versus right. It’s a matter of authoritarianism versus civil liberties. There is no middle ground, and no time nor justification for apathy.

Because if we don’t draw the line now, where and when are we going to draw it?