Cory Doctorow discussed digital technology with Edward Snowden
Cory Doctorow and Edward Snowden met to discuss digital surveillance Frederick Florin/Getty

I appeared at an event in New York this week with Edward Snowden to discuss how computers can be a tool for liberation instead of coercive control. The resounding optimistic feeling was that while networks can let Facebook gut our future, they can also be used to seize it.

The 21st century has seen a maturation of last century's tools of totalitarian control . Technology has supercharged the reach of the descendants of the East German Stasi, who employed one paid informant for every 60 East Germans in 1989. Today, the NSA's surveillance surpasses the Stasi's in every way, including efficiency, with a spy to citizen ratio that's more like 1:10,000. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation, the NSA surveils the world with a battalion, warehousing this data and shares it with domestic law enforcement agencies.

These institutions use the information to circumvent hard won constitutional protections. Western military contractors export these tools to oppressive dictatorships, creating "turnkey surveillance states". In Ethiopia, the ruling junta has used hacking tools to break into the computers of exiled dissidents in the USA. The information they stole was used to target activists in Ethiopia for arbitrary detention and torture.

In my science fiction novel Walkaway, I see an optimistic escape from the looming surveillance disaster. It imagines people oppressed by surveillance might "walk away" and found a parallel society where citizens’ technological know-how creates a world of fluid, improvisational technological play.

It's a contrast to the kind of digital sociability we engage in today, which is designed to produce an exhaust stream of compromising personal information that can be used to manipulate you. Last week, a leaked memo revealed that Facebook created a presentation for finance-industry customers showing how they could target children who were anxious, depressed or frightened, to sell to them at vulnerable moments. You couldn't ask for a neater demonstration of the power computers to make the worst parts of our lives even worse.

Surveillance always has rationalizations. States say they need it to catch internal enemies who plan acts of terror; law enforcement says it will let them allocate policing resources; corporations promise to use itto improve their services and, of course, to bring you tailored personal marketing messages from trusted partners, like those "retargeted" ads that have follow users as they browse.

Companies and governments say we need not fear the surveillance they demand. Because you have nothing to hide. Because you're getting safety in exchange for the erosion of your privacy. Besides, you already decided that being spied on was a good deal: you joined Facebook, you voted for politicians who expanded spying, you searched Google. The reason you're in that giant, illegal FBI facial recognition database? You opted in. To opt out, just don't have a face.

In living memory, people working together have reformed our laws and mores to legitimize mixed-race families, equal pay for women, homosexuality, and, imminently, transgender/nonbinary identity and marijuana use (also: the basic humanity of people with developmental delays, the worth of people on the autism spectrum).

Those struggles were fought and won by people who chose which aspect of their identities they shared and when. By choosing the time and manner of their "coming out" to friends and family, they recruited them, building the coalitions that changed the world and rescued future generations from their own fate.

The insistence of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world that having secrets is "two-faced" and the design of technology engineered to coax revelations from you in order to target you for ads endangers our freedoms and potential for progress.

The erosion of privacy and the ability to single out the vulnerable -- as with Facebook's marketing to young children -- bends the arc of history away from justice. Our grandchildren will not celebrate Christmas 2067 by asking us to tell them again how, in 2017, we'd attained social perfection by reforming all unjust prejudice. Surveillance condemns people to repress their suffering.

Snowden emphasized this "freedom to act" and especially the "freedom to act together," pointing out that Ayn Rand elevated the former, but that my book *Walkaway* concerns itself with the latter. He's on the right track: the internet has given us the power to find others to join us in our social enterprises beyond the wildest dreams of yesterday's organizers. From finding people to play a videogame, to connecting to protesters marching for women's rights, or science, or the climate, we live in a golden age for the joining of causes and the forming of coalitions.

This will be a great thing, if only we don't screw it up. If Facebook's brand of rapacious "surveillance capitalism", to use writer Shoshana Zuboff's excellent phrase, doesn't snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Surveillance compounds injustice, from the poor people experiencing 21st century redlining that steers them toward predatory financial products as they move through the web, to the milita checkpoints in Syria where you have to show your Facebook account to prove you're on the "right side" or face a bullet (alarmingly, the US Customs and Border Patrol has claimed the right to force visitors to the USA to reveal their social graphs by logging into their Facebook accounts at the border).

Snowden's brave act was a virtuoso technological feat, using cryptography and networks, combined with shrewd understanding of the media to change the way we view our world. His whistleblowing opened a long-overdue debate on how technology can be used to enhance the power of people to militate for a more inclusive and just society, and shield our privacy and integrity from reprisals using cryptographic tools.

Primers like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Surveillance Self Defence kit show the tools needed to protect your online life from future governments at home, to ransomware creeps and voyeurs, and doxxers and harassers. Normalizing the use of these tools gives us the power to use technology to fight together for a better future. Otherwise, this invasive technology will take away our power to fight against the status quo and its injustices.

- Cory Doctorow is a Canadian journalist and science fiction author