Guardrails on digital highways


That surveillance of citizens around the world is on the increase is a fait accompli. The most glaring case of systematic surveillance is China. Chinese society increasingly feels the smothering effects of surveillance. Jaywalk and the cameras identify you with facial recognition or by the way you walk, and the consequences may be demerits that restrict your privileges. There’s a bigger price to pay if you’re a street vendor without a license or worse if you panhandle. If you have at some time rubbed authorities the wrong way your cell phones may suddenly be tracked and scanned regularly for untoward behaviors.

Around the world however, “The relentless bad news stories paint a picture of an ungoverned online world that grows more dangerous by the day… especially for democratic societies,” according to Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. (Foreign Affairs-Jan/Feb 2022)

Why would anyone put up with such oppressive surveillance? Well, the Communist Party offers an upside to the 1.4 billion people in the Peoples Republic of China, something akin to the communist promise of a utopian society. Josh Chin and Liza Lin wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal of “the promise of a perfectly engineered society, one in which artificial intelligence companies work hand in glove with police to track down fugitives, find abducted children and publicly shame jaywalkers… The appeal of a perfectly engineered society is real.” Never mind the intrusions into your private lives, we promise they say, to make you feel safe.

While this may sound fantastically promising to some, to others it’s reminiscent of the Orwellian projection of an illusional totalitarian communal life. Some researchers have reported that of approximately one billion security cameras functional in the world today, more than half are in China.

Last June, in a New York Times article on China’s expanding surveillance state, it was reported that China was collecting huge amounts of personal data. “Phone tracking devices are now everywhere. Police are creating some of the largest DNA databases in the world. Authorities are building upon facial recognition technology to collect voice prints from the general public.” In the southeast city of Zhongshan, these technologies are being coupled with, “the first region-wide iris databases, which have the capacity to hold iris samples of up to 30 million people.”

Those who help report ne’er-do-wells in China and work with the police to control street peddlers, homeless or street vendors are called “chengguan,” and they have infamously been known to sometimes violently attack these often poorest and most unfortunate of China’s citizens. Evidence can be found on YouTube.

Chin and Lin are quick to point out that, “The rich don’t have an incentive to make trouble, and the destitute don’t have the power, but the people in the middle have just enough of both. And the pressures they face trying to make their way in modern China make them unlikely to lash out.” Hence the blanketing of surveillance creeps on.

So, we know where China is when it comes to a surveillance society, but we also know that the same kinds of surveillance technology are surfacing, if not yet suffocating, in the world’s democracies. The question is, is mass data a creeping technological force that can spread, infect and overwhelm democracies as well, like a digital “bugging” pandemic? Are there emerging symptoms we should be wary of?

Some of the early signs are already extant. Those looking for jobs now have to scrub what they can of their social media histories. These records are encroachments on our privacy that we unknowingly or indifferently have given up to the digital servers that store our thoughts, our behaviors, our mistakes and indiscretions, and are akin to a digital tattoo that may never be fully erased from the skin of our life’s history.

“Information capitalism” is an expression increasingly used to describe how social media apps like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and TikTok siphon off personal information to use in marketing and profiteering and also to sell to private companies or anyone else interested in our private data. It’s cool to allow system software to use our image to sign into our computers but that facial recognition can also be sold and associated with your internet browsing habits and everything else about you. Artificial intelligence is particularly adept at mingling these data.

It’s not just private companies that have large appetites for our personal and private information. Like him or not, it was the release of National Security Agency information by Edward Snowden regarding the impact of the U.S. Patriot Act and the extent of U.S. government citizen surveillance. According to reporting several years ago by the New York Times, it was “the first major revelation that the government could illegally, and possibly unconstitutionally, seize the private records of millions of individuals who had not been suspected of any wrongdoing, and had been hiding all of this from its citizens…(and further) that “The history of mass surveillance in the U.S. runs deep, including detailing how the NSA is able to collect anyone’s personal data via cellphones, laptops, search history, Facebook, Skype and chatrooms… allowing the NSA to build what it calls ‘a pattern of life’.”

As facial recognition technologies combine with machine learning algorithms, the temptation to use such technologies by law enforcement will require stronger legal restrictions and protections. Advocates for using such technologies like to message that it only enhances our safety, and it’s an easy case to make, except when there are no guardrails to protect us from being overrun by encroachments on our privacy.

It’s worthwhile noting that there is no explicit mention of privacy in the Constitution, although it’s implicit in the 1st and 14th amendments. More challenging are the global implications of surveillance. While the U.S. may come to terms with regulations that satisfy most citizens regarding privacy and surveillance rules, cyberspace is infinitely pervasive.

All to say, technology can be a wonderful thing when it makes our lives easier and healthier. However, it carries with it not only opportunities but also vulnerabilities. It is capable of having undoing effects on democracies when it becomes too intrusive in our private lives. The time is at hand to build more guardrails on our digital highways, and to build the international digital shields to protect us from unwanted global encroachments before it’s too late.

Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.

Bill Sims Contributing columnist Sims Contributing columnist

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