Surveillance Capitalism & the Tsarist Secret Police

Steve Dempsey
5 min readSep 1, 2020

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Okhrana photo album of revolutionaries from Hoover Institution Archives

The Okhrana was the secret police force of the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was a forerunner of the KGB, created to protect the Tsar from terrorists and revolutionaries.

It was an organisation that embraced innovation. It used early fingerprinting techniques, bulletproof vests, bugs and phone taps. It also embraced big data. Well, an analogue precursor to big data. The Okhrana captured and compiled every detail of their subjects lives. Everything they could glean through surveillance and any other method was laid out in complex diagrams. The subject sat in the centre of these diagram, with a network of coloured lines illustrating their relationships with others. Green lines indicated someone that the subject was in direct contact with. Yellow circles indicated family. Brown lines indicated friends and acquaintances. Red lines indicated political connections.

This sounds a lot like a graph database. That’s a database that stores the data and the relationships between that data; a powerful tools for visualising the interconnections between records in complex datasets. The organisation that’s made the most of Graph databases? Facebook.

Graph Database from Caitlin Hudon on Twitter

The Russian state police’s filing system and Facebook’s online ecosystem — indeed almost any online ecosystem — both represent our messy real world relationships. One exists on paper, created by and accessible only to the secret police; the other online, created by users themselves, owned by a commercial entity and accessible to anyone who can pay. Both are can be put to dangerous use.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt discusses how the methods like those perfected by the Okhrana allows totalitarian rulers to change the concept of crime and criminals, and erase undesirables from memory.

She says:

“A look at the gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish, not who is who or who thinks what, but who is related to whom and in what degree or kind of intimacy. The totalitarian ruler knows that it is dangerous to send a person to a concentration camp and leave his family and particular milieu untouched; the map on the wall would enable him to eradicate people without leaving any traces of them-or almost none. Total abolition of legality is safe only under the condition of perfect information, or at least a degree of knowledge of private and intimate details which evokes the illusion of perfection”.

You may think that this warning makes sense in relation to totalitarian regimes from history, but not in relation to a website that wants to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. But remember, a United Nations report stated that the use of Facebook played a “determining role” in inciting hate and violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya. The result was that tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes.

The Okhrana’s datasets allowed agents to understand complex relationships at a glance. Facebook allows advertisers to use its data to target audiences and even find likeminded audiences, based on similar patterns and interconnections. The main difference? Facebook and other online entities have clear and transparent motives: they are capitalists not totalitarians.

But surveillance capitalism comes with risks. To date, companies that monetise user data — whether American, Chinese, or European — have privatised the profits and socialised these risks. They see users, not citizens. Dollars not despots. They lack the ethical awareness to protect individuals from bad actors. And regulators have been unwilling or unable to provide adequate oversight. As a result, the infrastructure of surveillance capitalism has been used to destabilise democracy, to gaslight, and to spread division and misinformation. You just need to pay to play.

And this is a game that the Russians know well. They even had a name for it: dezinformatsiya. This referred to any coordinated measures to disseminate false or misleading information to the media in targeted countries. It was used to strategically undermine and disrupt the policies of overseas governments, while strengthening the position of the Soviet Union.

Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve read the UK Parliament’s intelligence and security committee recent report on Russian meddling published in July 2020. It found that Russian interference in Britain “is the new normal” and successive British governments turned a blind eye to campaigns of disinformation and the purchase of influence.

Or maybe you’ve read the report from the US Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It found that the Russian government disrupted the election and Russian intelligence viewed members of the Trump campaign as easily manipulated. And as CNN pointed out, these tactics have been on the go since the 80s.

Effectively, they’re the same tactics that have been on the go since the Okhrana’s days. Spy Historian Richard Deacon (of course, it’s a psuedonym) suggests the Okhrana was “the most total form of espionage devised in the latter part of the 19th century and still forming the basis of Soviet espionage and counterespionage today.”

So it’s no surprise that Russian agents knew just how to misappropriate Facebook and other online tools to further their aims. They’ve had a playbook for years. They probably couldn’t believe their luck when they realised surveillance capitalism had built the online infrastructure that allowed them to dust off this playbook and upgrade it for a digital age.

Hannah Arendt believed that the Okhrana’s tracking of interconnections was limited only by the size of the filing cards used. In theory, a single massive sheet of paper could show the relations and cross-relationships of the entire population, she noted. But Arendt never counted on the internet. The potential to track interconnections — and spread hate, fear or misinformation — is now almost limitless. Everything is possible and nothing is true.

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Steve Dempsey

Digital Transformation + People + Business + Product Development & Design.