South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Niall Ferguson says the trend of government and business tracking our every move – in some cases, in an attempt to deter crime – exposes us to another kind of danger, that of surveillance
In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky fired a broadside against all the Victorian do-gooders who dreamt of a perfectly rational society. “You seem certain that man himself will give up erring of his own free will,” he fulminated. He foresaw a ghastly future in which “all human acts will be listed in something like logarithm tables … and transferred to a timetable … [that] will carry detailed calculations and exact forecasts of everything to come”. In such a world, his utilitarian contemporaries believed, there would be no wrongdoing. It would have been planned, legislated and regulated out of existence.
We are nearly there. Or so it seems.
Yes, I know. Corruption is impure. Crime is a felony. And illegal immigration is against the law. Altogether: Sin is wicked! So I should have cheered British Prime Minister David Cameron’s international anti-corruption summit last week. I should be a paid-up supporter of the campaign to close down tax havens. I should be glad to see the back of 500-euro bills. And I should feel a thrill of patriotic pride when I hear Boris Johnson pledge to regain control of Britain’s borders.
And yet every one of these steps towards a more perfect world makes me feel Dostoevsky’s disquiet.
Now, I do not condone corruption, tax evasion, organised crime or unregulated migration. Nevertheless, I am deeply suspicious of the concerted effort to address all these problems in ways that markedly increase the power of states – and not just any states but specifically the world’s big states – at the expense of both small states and the individual. What makes me especially wary is that today, unlike in Dostoevsky’s time, the technology exists to give those big states, along with a few private companies, just the kind of control he dreaded.
Consider some of the most recent encroachments on liberty. The British government announced it will set up a publicly accessible register of beneficial owners (the individuals behind shell companies). In addition, offshore shell companies and other foreign entities that buy or own British property will henceforth be obliged to declare their owners in the new register. No doubt these measures will flush out or deter some villains. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for a foreign national to want to own a property in Britain without having his or her name made public. Suppose you were an apostate from Islam threatened with death by jihadists, for example.
Or consider the phasing out of the 500-euro bill, fondly known in the underworld as the “bin Laden”. I have little doubt that when someone elects to transfer one million dollars by putting the equivalent in “bin Ladens” into a small bag and handing it to someone else, both parties are up to no good. Yet getting rid of bin Ladens is the thin end of a monetary wedge.
Economist Ken Rogoff is one of a number of economists who want to get rid of banknotes altogether. They argue cash is an anachronism, heavily used in the black and grey economy, and easily replaced in an age of credit cards and electronic payments. But their motive is not just to shut down the mafia. It is also to increase the power of government. Without cash, no payment can be made without being recorded and potentially coming under official scrutiny. Without cash, central banks can much more easily impose negative interest rates, without fearing that bank customers may withdraw their money.
The state wants data. What you earn. What you spend. Where you are. But what the state knows is just a fraction of what Facebook knows about you. The reason Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire is that, as you blithely share your likes and dislikes with family and friends, you tell Facebook almost everything there is to know about you. Advertisers will pay Facebook vast sums for that information. But do you really think advertisers are the only people who want Facebook’s data? (Fact: it was one of the internet companies named as collaborators in the US National Security Agency’s leaked Prism surveillance programme.)
We thought it was Big Brother we had to worry about. It turned out to be Big Data.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford