Privacy and a Compromats
16 May, 2013
Back in Shevardnadze's day when people talked about people working for the government they talked about compromats. It was a system. Just as it was a system where traffic police had to pay for their jobs, and could collect money from the population to pass upstairs to keep their job and to pay off the debts they incurred to buy the job.
It took me a while to understand compromats. The way it works is the following. The corrupt people
already in government, and everybody was assumed to be corrupt, didn't want anybody honest in government because an honest person can bring everybody else down. So for every newcomer, there needed to be a way to make sure they were part of the team. So they would be forced to do something that compromised them, to play the game, to get their hands dirty. Whatever that act was, that would be their compromat. Their boss and colleagues would then know they were now in the mud with everybody else and so the group could get on with the important business of sucking money, time, and nerves out of the economy and population.

But now we live in a new world. There is no more petty corruption or almost none. Civil servants may be or may not be good at their jobs and may or may not be lazy but they are overwhelmingly honest. But the problem remains, how can individuals in the state keep people loyal, and trust them not to rat out team members. And when some nagli member of the public starts to get out of line, how can individuals in the state pull them back in or tell them to shut up? Is is just so so useful to be able to do that.

Just in time to help with this complicated question comes youtube and cheap advanced digital recording technology. It is very easy for the state to record practically whatever it wants. Of course 99% of those recordings are useless but data storage is cheap and 1% can come in really handy when somebody needs to be told to line up with government priorities or face embarrassment. Which government could resist the temptation?

Back in the last months of Shevardnadze's time, during important lunch time conversations, people would take out their phones, take the batteries and out put them on the table. Even when a phone was off, if the battery was in it, it could record voices near by. So taking the battery out was a signal to the other person that she or he should do the same because it would be a confidential conversation. Now the the presumption is pervasive that all conversations are recorded. The government has legislation that a judge must give written permission for the government to listen or record a phone conversation. But this was ignored under the National Movement just as it is being ignored now. The interior ministry still takes whatever it wants from servers of all the telecom companies. Anything and everything. Nobody even takes the batteries out of phones anymore because have gotten used to it.

Even more insidious is that the responsibility or the release of the information is never clear. It is not as if some individual releases the video or audio of a phone call, and can be criticized or prosecuted. The government authorities then just remain silent, or even comment on what was released as if they had nothing to do with it. The videos or audio files simply show up in the public domain.

Every country has conversations about issues similar to this, how much information can the state gather about its citizens. But in no country that I know of does the state allow itself to gather whatever it wants in a way that is clearly against the law and then release the information when somebody who has access to it finds it politically useful, either for themselves of for their political party. There are indications that this may be changing now, but so far only tentative steps and those steps have to do with individuals rather than the legislation and execution.

People in Georgia are not quite as shocked by this as they would be elsewhere. Maybe in part because in the Soviet period the power of the state was for all practical purposes unlimited. In fact the most interesting thinking and writing about the limits of state power against the individual was in the period before and during the first republic from 1918 to 1921. In the period after independence from the Soviet Union the question was mainly on how to make the state more powerful and more effective. It has only been in recent years that technology has made it so easy for individuals working with parts of the state to exercise such power over the lives of individuals that some people have started to become concerned about this. And it is a true pathology, hypnotic to many of those in power to be able to use technology to gather a small file that can make citizens do whatever they are told via a threat of public exposure.

This truly will be the path that new totalitarian states will follow. Of course it is time for parliament to address this problem and set up clear and very strong laws limiting state power and for the state to start obeying those laws. But it is also time for individual citizens to take this problem more seriously, before they or their families or friends come next.